"On friday afternoons the hospice smells like horse"
"On friday afternoons the hospice smells like horse"
Interview with Angelika Behm, hospice director, Diakonie-Hospiz Wannsee
Quality of life on four hooves: every Friday, pony mare 13 visits the guests at the Diakonie-Hospiz Wannsee in Berlin, Germany. Anyone is welcome to have 13 at his/her room, feed, pet and cuddle with her. For many guests, this is a very special encounter and experience.
Hospice director Angelika Behm spoke with REHACARE.com about the sensitive pony lady and her effect on the hospice guests.
Ms. Behm, how come you have these regular animal visits at your facility?
Angelika Behm: We once had a guest who was still quite young and whose disease progressed rapidly. This guest had met his wife at a horse farm and wanted to visit the farm one more time before he died. However, his health had deteriorated to the point where this was no longer possible. But since the family owned their own pony, the idea was to then bring the pony to the hospice – onto the patio and perhaps also into the room through the patio door. Unfortunately, we were not able to do that.
That really started to bother me a lot. As luck would have it, I spoke with my neighbors and told them about this incident. My neighbor then told me about another pony that had already visited a nursing home. The animal’s owner was very interested in visiting another facility. Shortly after that, she called me and we first met without the pony at my office. We talked it through and arranged for it to happen – and this is how it all began.
Did you have any animal visits prior to that at the hospice?
Behm: Since the hospice has been in operation, so for the past 14 years, we have always had dog visits – even now, our poodle Herr Müller comes to visit us regularly. Pets are also welcome at our facility. Quite often, family members bring their dogs or cats along when they visit. Guests can also keep a bird in their room if they like. We already had guests with a canary or a parrot. Having said that, this is only under the stipulation that our nursing staff is not required to take care of the animals. The care for the animals needs to be provided by another source.
And now you have a pony stop by for regular visits. What exactly is pony 13’s job?
Behm: 13 and her owner visit the rooms of the guests who would like a visit from her. The guests are able to approach 13. This typically happens by guests feeding her from a big bowl of cut carrots or by petting her. More than half of our 14 guests love to do this.
Behm: They are truly happy to see her. And at this point, word has gotten around. The first time guests told their family members that they were visited by a pony the previous day, their relatives couldn’t believe it – until they saw her with their own eyes. It is always a great joy for everyone. That’s evident by the smiles on their faces. And then there is also the smell: on Friday afternoons, when 13 comes to visit, the hospice smells like horse. It’s wonderful. After all, it is a sensory experience at many levels: you can see, smell and touch the animal. You can feel her soft warm fur. The pony is a very calm animal that also bends down toward guests if they let it. One of our guests who was a big horse lover downright snuggled with 13. He kept saying, "My princess! How nice of you to come" and "Go back home to your stable and pray for me."
Do 13’s visits also have a lasting positive effect?
Behm: She is obviously a great topic of conversation. This is something very special. Guests actually don’t expect to have these types of encounters when they enter the hospice. That’s just something that people talk about. And our guests look forward to seeing 13 and keep asking when she comes back. All of this adds to the quality of life. That’s something we actually want to convey and have people experience at our hospice: quality of life until the end.
We also have some guests, who have been staying with us for a while and who have had many visits from 13. They are always especially happy to see her again. And I truly believe it is not a question of the amount of time people spend with her. Even just three or four minutes are enough to create a positive experience.
By the way, I don’t think that the pony visits will ever become routine because this is truly something special. Dogs, on the other hand, are simply a part of normal life around here. After all, they are not very big, and especially not our poodle Herr Müller. He is obviously awesome, able to lie on someone’s bed and also loves to be petted. But having a pony stand in your room in front of your bed is something else entirely.
Were there situations with 13 and guests that you are particularly fond of?
Behm: During one of her first visits, 13 leaned over one of our female guests. The guest said, "I have never experienced this in my life. I have never seen a horse up close and touch it." That’s when I thought to myself, it was all worth it if you can have this type of experience at the end of your life.
What makes 13 so special?
Behm: She is an exceptionally calm animal and able to tune into the needs of the guests. Her owner also believes that 13 senses whether someone is near death or has a limited amount of time on Earth or still has some time left. That’s something we also hear about other animals, such as cats for example. And 13 is also able to sense things and responds differently, is even calmer and more cautious and even more affectionate in these instances.
Would you recommend for other hospices or similar nursing facilities to have animals like 13 come for visits?
Behm: That’s obviously something that every facility needs to decide on its own. The advantage of our hospice is its great structure that can accommodate visits like this. Our hospice is a low rise building where all rooms are located on the ground floor. You don’t have to climb any stairs or use an elevator. We have tiles everywhere or linoleum flooring in the corridors and rooms, which is also why small "accidents" would not be a problem.
We were definitely lucky that we found each other and that things worked out this way. Something like this would certainly also be very beneficial for other facilities as well!