By Julianne Labreche
When Lucille Crépeau, a woman in her nineties, passed away earlier this year, her only son Michel reached out in his grief to a team from Ottawa Therapy Dogs. He invited Lise Dazé and Bella, her Rottweiler and Bernese Mountain Dog mix, to participate in the funeral held to celebrate his mother’s life.
“I was back in Ottawa during this difficult period and saw Lise and Bella multiple times,” Michel, who lives in British Columbia, remembers. His mother had a stroke and as her health gradually deteriorated, she was moved to palliative care. “Pets were significant companions to my mom,” he recalls.
Lise, who loves to sing, sang composer Franz Schubert’s beautiful song Ave Maria at the funeral. She was comfortable singing that day before the mainly French-speaking community of invited family and friends, having sung in churches since she was a young girl. Nowadays, she also uses singing as a way to connect with residents at Centre d’accueil Champlain, a long-term care residence in Vanier where Madame Crépeau resided prior to her death. Bella – groomed and looking her best with her Ottawa Therapy Dogs scarf – sat in honour near the cremation urn during the service.
“You meet lots of people, but you really get close to some of the residents,” says Lise, describing her volunteer work with Bella at Centre d’accueil Champlain over the years. Her passion and enthusiasm for her volunteer work are obvious. She is the kind of volunteer who goes above-and-beyond the call of duty to cheer up the residents, many of whom are elderly and have dementia or other cognitive and physical impairments. Every Saturday, she and Bella visit the residence. Sometimes, she makes extra visits, especially when a resident is approaching death. Residents pat Bella, chat with Lise about family pets or other topics, or hold hands and sing.
Lise’s relationship to Madame Crépeau was one of those close relationships. Bella helped to forge a strong bond between the two women who were alike in many ways, despite the difference in their respective ages. Lise remembers her as a stubborn, determined woman. “If I was late, she’d ask, where were you? I was waiting for you,” she laughs. She also remembers her frail friend, a former hospital employee, as a strong advocate for others. She often spoke up for other residents and had high expectations about the level of care provided by staff. Lise liked her feisty, strong personality and easily connected with her.
The two women also shared a love of dogs, deepening the relationship even further. Madame Crépeau lived part of her life in Ottawa where she had always had little dogs to keep her company. Even though Bella is a big dog, she appreciated the dog’s calm, gentle temperament and delighted that Bella was clean and always smelled good. Visits usually began with a pat for Bella and then the big dog would lie down at her feet while the two women chatted away.
One day near the final weeks of Madame Crépeau’s life, Lise got a call from staff at the residence that her friend was ill. She began to visit more often. During the Christmas break, Lise visited her every day. She visited on Christmas Eve, on Christmas day, on New Year’s Eve and until she passed away on January 1, 2018. On that day, Lise remembers walking with Bella in the park and experiencing a sudden feeling that she needed to visit the residence. She drove there with Bella just in time to spend some special time with Madame Crépeau. Lise was with her friend when she passed away. “I stayed with her, prayed with her and then went and got the nurse. It was very quiet and peaceful, “she remembers.
Andrea Chartrand, Activities Coordinator at the City of Ottawa facility, describes the work of this therapy dog team as ‘friendship visits’. They help to break the isolation that many residents feel in an institutional setting and the effects of having experienced different losses in the past, including the loss of their pets. “She has developed some beautiful relationships. We’re very lucky to have her,” Andrea says.
She explains that prior to being assigned to a therapy dog team, residents are evaluated to determine who likes dogs, who had family pets and who is allergic to animals. Then it’s determined who would be appropriate for a therapy dog visit.
Lise admits that it’s difficult to say goodbye when a resident passes. She continues to be comforted by her faith and by knowing that these elderly residents have enjoyed these therapy dog visits.
Julianne Labreche has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2000. Currently an associate member, Julianne is a past Director on Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ Board of Directors and was a therapy dog team with her previous dog, Paugan, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. She is also the author of “The Woman Who Lost Her Words, A Story About Stroke, Speech and Some Healing Pets” based on her experience with animal-assisted therapy using Paugan in her work in speech therapy.