Rocksie is a dog with a mission.
The chocolate lab trotted down the hallway at Jeanne’s House at Northgate Health Care Facility on Nash Road in North Tonawanda, tail slowly waving, approaching residents with the patience of a seasoned professional while accompanied by her owner, April Biamonte.
Resident Delores Bilson spent some time visiting with Rocksie one recent morning before the licensed therapy dog and Biamonte continued on to others at the facility.
“We have a thing going, Rocksie and I,” Bilson said with a smile. “We’re buddies. You look forward to it, just can’t wait for Fridays to come.”
While Rocksie may be one of the most anticipated visitors at Jeanne’s House, she’s not the only one — and Niagara Hospice hopes that she’ll soon be joined by others at Jeanne’s House, a collaboration between Northgate and Hospice that is the first of its kind in New York state.
The unit, which was designed specifically for residents receiving hospice care in a long-term-care setting, opened in May. It was named for Jeanne D’Arc Abou-Antoun, a certified nursing assistant at Northgate who died last year while under Hospice care herself.
“She was the most warm, loving, wonderful person,” said Northgate administrator Terry Collins. “She would have been perfect to work on this unit ... and she would have wanted to.”
Collins said the partnership is focused on meeting the needs of patients who need both 24-hour skilled nursing care and end-of-life hospice services, “to bring to bear the best of both.”
“It allows Hospice to concentrate their focus,” she said. “Instead of travelling all over the country, they can concentrate on this unit ... and the 22 people who live here.
“And it allows us to ... let people have that full Hospice experience, similar to what they’d have at Hospice House. It’s set up for those special needs.”
Jeanne’s House is co-managed by both organizations. There is room for 22 patients, a lounge with a bookshelf, TV and kitchenette area and an outdoor courtyard with tables and chairs, flowers and birdfeeders. The rooms are designed to be more “homey,” with carpeting, beds that don’t look like the traditional hospital beds, memory boards on walls and other touches.
And there are the volunteers, like Biamonte and Rocksie.
Biamonte, a Cambria resident, said they’ve been visiting Jeanne’s House since June.
“Seeing people smile, it’s incredible,” she said. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through. We come in and we see people’s faces light up.
“If I can put a smile on people’s faces, it’s well worth it to me. Sometimes they’ll start telling me about dogs that they had.”
While volunteers willing to visit with pets and other talents are needed, sometimes what’s needed is simply the gift of time. Earlier that morning, volunteer Lindsay Brehm, 15, sat outside with resident Eleanor Lapp, 92, on a sunny August day.
“This one’s lovely,” Lapp said, indicating Brehm. “Everything is nice; everyone is nice. They help me.”
Brehm, a Starpoint High School student, started training in April and started volunteering in June. She does everything from sitting with residents to sewing buttons on sweaters ... a duty she later took on for Lapp.
“I love it,” she said. “The patients always like to have people come in .... and you put a smile on their faces, and it makes you so much happier, too.”
Niagara Hospice director of volunteer services Alice Beck said volunteer needs at Hospice sites, including Jeanne’s House, are more one-on-one than at other heath-care facilities.
She often visits the sites to get a feel for what’s needed: For example, she learned Monday that one resident likes to play cards, while another enjoys knitting. Volunteers with those interests would be a good fit.
“Another thing that is needed: Anyone who is very crafty or in the arts fields. One patients loves to draw; that would be perfect,” Beck said. “Any special talents they have, all they need to do is call me.Or anyone who just like to read, for people who can’t read anymore. That’s always an important thing.”
Jeanne’s House is also looking for musicians to perform at the site (currently, one volunteer plays the flute) and pet owners such as Biamonte. Most animal visitors to the site are dogs, although one cat visits twice a month, Beck said. Animals do not have to be certified for therapy, although they do have to undergo an assessment before being accepted for the duty.
For more information about volunteer opportunities and to complete an application, contact Niagara Hospice director of volunteer services Alice Beck at 280-0748 or email email@example.com. More organization information can be found at http://www.niagarahospice.org/. Volunteers are also needed at Niagara Hospice House in Lockport and with the Niagara Hospice Alliance.