Jon Katz and companion Izzy, both wearing the photo IDs of hospice volunteers, are greeted brightly as they enter the dining room at Pleasant Valley Infirmary.
While Katz chats and jokes with caretakers and residents seated around tables, Izzy scans the room like a shepherd surveying his flock before sidling up to a white-haired woman in a wheelchair and placing his head on her knee.
“Izzy's my boyfriend,” says 96-year-old Marion McEachron, whose strong handshake reflects a lifetime of hard work on her farm in these Washington County hills. “He smiles at me. Didn't you see him laugh?”
The sleek, handsome border collie breaks into a broad, tongue-lolling grin as McEachron strokes his glossy neck. A nurse confides to Katz that McEachron, an Alzheimer's patient, was withdrawn earlier but her mood had clearly brightened with Izzy's calm presence.
Later, driving to his next stop with Izzy dozing on a quilt in the back seat, Katz talks about what brought him to hospice work — an experience he shares in his new book, “Izzy and Lenore: Two Dogs, an Unexpected Journey, and Me.”
“I was drawn to hospice work because I wanted to do something with my dogs that was more meaningful than some of the traditional dog-human activities, like sheepherding or even conventional therapy work,” Katz says.
A social worker from Washington County Hospice had come to one of Katz's book readings and talked to him about the need for volunteers and the possibility of bringing dogs into the experience.
“So I went into training with Izzy, and later with my Lab Lenore, and was greatly rewarded by the experience” Katz says. “I found it to be very rich, intimate and loving.”
At the same time Katz was considering volunteering for hospice, he was battling a case of depression that drained his energy and dampened his spirits. Friends and family advised him against hospice work, imagining that so much focus on death and dying could only make things worse.
Instead, it brought a degree of redemption.
“When I was feeling the lowest, I'd go do hospice work. I'd always feel better,” he says, adding that giving of oneself to others is therapeutic for a depressed person because it focuses attention outward instead of inward.
“Hospice work gives you tremendous perspective,” Katz says. “It made me want to use my time well, and being depressed is not a good use of time. You see people at the end of their lives and they're very conscious of how precious time is. They know what's important. They have a sense of humor. In a way, they're very free.”
Hospice work is the latest path in a continuing journey of mid-life adventure that began in 1999 when Katz fled life as a big-city journalist living in suburban New Jersey to the green hills 170 miles north in New York state.
At 61, he has reinvented his life. He has written 17 books, the last seven dealing with dogs and life on the farm he shares with goats, sheep, donkeys, dogs and other animals. His wife, Paula Span, visits as often as she can get away from her own busy life as a New York City journalist who teaches at Columbia University.
“This last year was just tough,” Katz says. “I had a crash. It was a tough winter. I had just been diagnosed with diabetes. I was dealing with some childhood issues that I had put off and never dealt with.”
He includes discussion of his downward spiral into depression and how he managed to overcome it in his new book. Besides help from a clinical social worker and a supportive network of friends, Katz took up photography. He displays his photos, as well as blogs chronicling his hospice work and life on the farm, on his Web site: http://www.bedlamfarm.com.
The wheels of Katz's Blazer crunch along the stony driveway of an ancient farmhouse beneath towering black locusts and maples, surrounded by a green bowl of flowery hillsides. Izzy trots to the door as Warren Cardwell, an 81-year-old widower, greets his visitors.
Katz and Izzy grew close to Cardwell and his wife of 60 years, Helen, while making hospice visits to the dying woman. Now, Katz is Cardwell's bereavement counselor as well as a dear friend.
“People might think that at death, all this support would stop,” Cardwell says, settling in his recliner with Izzy at his knee. “It didn't. These good people were at the funeral. Jon read some poetry. Even Izzy was there. He just curled right up under her casket. Then at the grave site he sat right next to me the whole time.”
With his own little dog yapping in another room, Cardwell talks about the special bond he has with Izzy.
“You can relate to Izzy without talking to him. I think he knows what's on your mind,” Cardwell says. “He's a real source of calm. He connected with Helen. He'd jump on the bed with her. Helen just lit up when she'd see him, and I guess I do, too. He brought sunshine.”
Amy Tucci, president of Hospice Foundation of America, said pet therapy can bring great comfort to patients and families. “It's just amazing to watch people who have been unconnected or not wanting to socialize, feeling totally comfortable petting a dog and sharing their emotions that way,”Tucci said.
At first, Katz was uncertain how a dog would cope with the paraphernalia of illness, such as wheelchairs, walkers, oxygen tanks and tubes. But Izzy took to the job at once, approaching patients calmly, gently sliding his head under a frail hand, lying still on a bed while someone drifted to sleep.
“Izzy was just a natural, he was born for this work,” Katz says. “He leads the way. He's like a social worker.”
Izzy's ability to connect with people in difficult circumstances is all the more surprising given his background. At a friend's urging, a dubious Katz took Izzy home from an abandoned farm where the untrained, unsocialized dog had been left to run wild inside a fence, cut off from human interaction. It took many months of work to calm the dog and teach him basic manners.
Back home on the sloping, leaf-dappled lawn of his Civil War-era farmhouse, dogs milling around his legs and goats bleating from the pen out back, Katz muses on how hospice work has brought a new dimension to his rural life.
“I would encourage anyone who wants to have a really intimate, powerful experience with humans to look into helping hospice people on the edge of life leave the world in comfort and dignity,” Katz says.
“It's been a great experience for me creatively as a writer, as a photographer, and probably more importantly, as a human being.”