16 July 2015

INTERVIEW - Dr. Ardra Cole: Innovation Showcase Scholarship Applicant

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Ardra Cole, founder of ElderDog Canada. ElderDog Canada may also be found on Facebook and Twitter. ElderDog Canada supports and maintains the relationship between senior citizens and their dogs. ElderDog also supports older dogs that have had their lives disrupted due to illness, relocation, or death of their human companion. Dr. Cole is a university professor that currently works as a Senior Administrator at a university; she has been a university faculty member for 25 years. Dr. Cole volunteered for Therapeutic Paws of Canada with her dog Tattoo (now passed on) and they regularly visited palliative care patients. Currently Dr. Cole is an Evaluator of prospective dog volunteers and their humans.

InfoStream (IS): The pet experience is clearly important to you, can you tell us how this developed?

Dr. Ardra Cole (DAC): I have lived with many dogs so I have personal experience with pets but I am also a researcher and my program of research for over a decade or so was on caregivers of seniors. Through that research I came to understand the important role that companion animals, especially dogs, play in seniors’ lives. It gave me a special and unique understanding of the role that pets play and the meaning that they have for people. One of my oldest dogs, now passed away, was a therapy dog and he and I volunteered for many years visiting long-term care facilities and he was particularly skilled at being with people at end of life. We visited palliative care most often and observing him being with people at that very critical and vulnerable stage of their lives was pretty humbling. Watching what he was able to do but also watching the responses from the people who wanted so much to just be with a dog and to feel the touch, closeness, and memories that his presence conjured; it was very deeply meaningful.

I have also been involved as an evaluator for therapy dogs so I bring a range of experiences that are all about the connection between animals and humans.

IS: What are your main goals with ElderDog Canada?

DAC: The primary goal is to support and maintain the relationship between a senior human and their companion animals who, more often than not, are also seniors. It’s all about the relationship between people and dogs; particularly seniors. Breaking that down, our goal is to help seniors keep their dogs with them at home as they live independently and to keep their (seniors and dogs) health and well-being. In doing that, helping the senior live independently longer and helping the dog remain longer in a loving and caring environment for as long as possible.

Connected with that, is valuing and honoring older dogs, those who have dedicated their lives to being companion animals to seniors (but not always) and are on in years and deserve to be valued for their long life and what they still have, how they still live, and what they can teach and contribute.

The third part is to honor and commemorate the dogs and the relationship they had after the dogs have passed away. Not to only honor them in life but also in death.

IS: Can you tell us about your education and how it has supported your work with ElderDog Canada?

DAC: I’m a teacher, my doctoral work is in applied psychology with a focus on teaching and learning and I work particularly within the context of adult education and community development. I do a lot of work with health professionals and seniors. My research program is with seniors and the role of companion animals in seniors’ lives. In addition to my focus on adult education and and psychology I’ve also done extended work on pet loss bereavement; it’s an extension of my applied psychology work. I have a particular interest in connection with the bereavement side of things for people experience the loss of a dog but more broadly in the important role of grieving and bereavement as part of a larger wellness process.

IS: What inspired your care for elderly people and their pets so deeply that you have started ElderDog Canada?

DAC: It’s a much deeper seated interest in seniors. Growing up many long years ago, I grew up in a family where my mother was a volunteer, she volunteered so much and was a strong community member. She spent a lot of time, and I tagged along with her, working in various capacities volunteering in seniors’ homes. I really grew up appreciating the important role that seniors play in our lives with a strong awareness of (I couldn’t say this back then but I can now) the ways in which as a society we don’t honor seniors as well as we should. I think those experiences really stayed with me and I have such a strong commitment to and love for being in the company of seniors. I feel that as a society we need to have a strong commitment to honor our elders in ways that we don’t currently. I also know firsthand what dogs can do for seniors and living with old dogs and old and ill dogs, it’s a very special thing to care for old and ill dogs. It’s like a parallel to caring for old and ill humans; there’s something deeply meaningful about being in the presence of and being honored to care for those who are vulnerable, whether they are humans or animals. Through that care, I’ve encountered some pretty neat questions about the meaning of life and death. Those are really deep answers but it is all part of my passion and commitment.

IS: It’s amazing to listen to you talk, I can feel your passion and respect. I know you also educate about the human-animal bond and the role animals can have for seniors. How do you use this education to support people and their dogs?

DAC: We have conversations with people, if you’re really well-informed, beyond only personal experience, then I think it enables you to have deeper and richer conversations with people and you can listen reflectively to people, their stories, what they think about their dogs. You can also extend that and help people to understand their own experiences more broadly. A lot of people tend to apologize for the depth of their attachment, they might be embarrassed by it or say “You probably think this is silly but…”, and to those stories I can say “No, not only do I not think it’s silly but…” You can respond in an informed way,  your knowledge breadth and depth allows that. So that’s on a personal level. I do a lot of speaking sessions to inform people about the role of dogs in seniors lives and also about ElderDog. I might be invited to go to a public library and I also speak with health professionals. In those situations I draw on my research and my knowledge of the literature in the area of companion animals, seniors, health benefits, and other benefits. It really helps to provide some legitimacy or validation or even just to help put ElderDog and the human-animal bond within a context that people can better understand and have a deeper level of respect for.

IS: Who do you work with most regarding education? What is your main focus?

DAC: There are typically three different purposes to providing education. One of them is to inform the general public. That would be anyone, especially when I’m speaking in a library. The goal is to raise awareness about ElderDog and it’s services and to recruit volunteers. The next one would be health professionals, caregivers, and family members. We want to make seniors and seniors’ family members aware that our supports are available to them. Getting into that system is a challenge. There’s also the recruiting of volunteers which has more of ElderDog focus. Content depends on the audience.

IS: What geographic areas does ElderDog currently support and what are your plans for growth?

DAC: We’re currently federally incorporated so we have the potential to grow across the country; that’s my dream. Our headquarters is in Nova Scotia. We have community-based chapters that are called pawds. We currently have four active pawds in Nova Scotia with a fifth starting up. My goal is to have a couple more in Nova Scotia. We have a pawd on Prince Edward Island and I’d like to expand into New Brunswick. There are two pawds in Ontario so far in Toronto and Ottawa, and one is starting in Calgary, Alberta. Those are our eight pawds so far. My goal is to have ElderDog pawds in communities in every province and in every region across the country. I think it’s quite doable because the plan for our pawds and the organizational structure is set up so that it is easily replicable across communities, regions, provinces. It’s just a matter of growing slowly across the country.

IS: How is ElderDog funded?

DAC: ElderDog currently is funded by donations and through fundraising activities at the pawd level and at the national office level. We have a number of fundraisers each year and the pawds do as well. We have an online store and we encourage donations in memory. It’s all donations and fundraising. We’ve had one federal grant to help us build capacity in our volunteer crew and that enabled us to develop material to use across the country; it was very helpful and we will continue to apply for grants and charitable status. Right now we’re lean but we just keep at it.

IS: Are finances one of the main barriers to the spread of the ElderDog program and support system?

DAC: Is it a barrier? I wouldn’t say that. We’re 100% volunteer run and I really want it to stay that way for a long time until there’s a reason for that to change. If we could afford some paid staff I think it would grow faster but that would make it a different organization and I don’t think we’re ready to make that change. Our biggest expense is veterinary costs. The more we grow, the greater the costs. Trying to keep up with those costs with our current level of funding is a worry; it’s the kind of thing that keeps me awake. For example, a dog needs dental work and where are we going to get the money for that? For pawds to grow, the dogs in those pawds are going to need help as well and their bills are could grow beyond the current capacity of the pawd. In that way finances are a barrier. I think that’s the main financial barrier, being able to handle the costs of veterinary care.

IS: Is there anything else you would like us to know?

DAC: Hmm, always such a tricky question. I guess the other challenge is something that’s important to talk about and that is ways of getting the word out there about ElderDog. There is no other organization like us. There are organizations that focus on helping seniors and some that help their animals as well but those all have fees and we’re no cost. There are organizations that help older dogs but there is no organization that focuses on the relationship between the two. I feel that this is such a special organization and I want everyone to know about it and it’s very difficult to get the word out there. I’ve never met anyone that didn’t immediately say, “Wow, that is so wonderful,” and it is! Old people and old dogs, it just doesn’t get better. I just really want people who need help to be able to get the help they need (dogs as well).  

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