One day, a long time ago, my friend Debbie tapped me on the shoulder at work and handed me the Senior Spotlight newspaper with the page open to a photo of my father petting a big dog. The picture was taken at the Adult Day Care program Dad used to go to a few times a week. I had no idea they had pet therapy, and certainly no idea he would be in the “news”. Sweet thoughts of two gentle giants enjoying each other’s company and attention came to mind. I assume they both benefited from this great moment.
When I was in college, I remember working on a research paper about the positive effects animals have on the aging and people with disabilities whose lives are generally confined to their homes or facilities. I recall learning that people who have pets in their homes generally have good nutrition because they want to feed their animals well too. Their moods are lighter, and overall, they take better care of themselves so they can stick around for their companions.
In the facility I worked in, we had a beautiful cat named Brutus. He often chose to rest in the large envelop/paper tray at the reception desk with what looked like not a care in the world. Visitors were delighted when they entered the building and saw him sprawled out in a plastic bed with a few layers of paper cushion.
I was amused one day when I witnessed him standing outside of the elevator waiting for someone to come along and push the button so the door would open. I summoned the elevator, and when the door opened, he walked on, turned around, sat down facing the doors, and waited for the doors to open again on the next floor. He figured out that this was how to get to different areas of the facility, as he had admirers in every corner. Residents, visitors, and staff were in love with him. He was a little aloof, though, and had his favorite humans. He had more fans than friends. People were just charmed that he adjusted so well to his huge home with 160 roommates.
Having a resident animal in a facility had it’s challenges though, because someone has to be responsible for the pet 7 days/week – feeding, litter box cleaning, monitoring for well-being. Brutus was in our facility for several years, and luckily had the best of care and attention. When his health began to fail, a nurse took him home to live out his days. It was a sad event when he left. He was not replaced because of the burden on the staff, I presume.
Once the resident feline was gone, a nurse’s aide started bringing in her little adorable black Pomeranian, Woopie. She was so smart, she learned that when the dining carts arrived, she had to leave the dining room. She would sit in the doorway and wait until the meal was over before returning. She danced down the hallways and had many admirers. We considered her a facility dog that left every evening with her owner.
I’m also thinking of an extremely smart poodle who goes to work with a friend at another facility. She just brings him to work and lets him roam around by himself. He even lets himself out the front door to do his business because he figured out that if he walks towards the front doors from either direction, they open. This makes me want a poodle.
Here, a wonderfully good natured Chesapeake Bay Retriever allows his owner to put a crazy wig on him for Halloween. I remember smiles everywhere that day – from residents and staff. I could sense that he knew, without a doubt, that he was having a positive impact on people and silently endured the mild discomfort that wig must have caused.
Then there was little Teddy who came in riding in a wagon. He was so precious, and looked like a little king riding around on his chariot.
Liebchen, the Schnauzer came to visit often, but she wouldn’t walk on the floors because they were too shinny, at least that’s what we thought. So she always visited riding in a spare wheelchair. She did her volunteer job a little differently than the others, but accomplished the same mission.
Not all people are fond of animals though. Some people have never lived with them or have had limited exposure and are not really interested. Some are afraid of animals because they’ve been bitten or had a negative encounter of some kind. I was talking to a sweet, soft spoken man one day at the facility about my German Shepherd, Michaela. I was taught a valuable lesson on the spot when he told me that he’s afraid of German Shepherds. He went on to say that he was a WWII prisoner of war in Germany, and his captors had him and other prisoners guarded by these animals. I never forgot that lesson, or the horror of this man’s experiences.
The wonderfully written book, Izzy and Lenore, by John Katz illustrates the importance of pets and people coming together in times of altered wellness. Jon’s Border Collie, Izzy became a formal Hospice Volunteer, outfitted with his very own name tag that he wore around his neck. He and Jon visited people who were nearing the end of their lives, and had a profound impact on them. Izzy instinctively knew what his role was, and accomplished it with intelligent grace and style.
People’s love for and reliance on animals for physical and emotional well-being is undeniable. Stuffed animals, pictures of animals, animal videos, and the presence of real animals provoke feelings of wellness and connection for many. Someday, with the right animal and at the right time in my life, I can picture myself sharing my love of dogs with people who need a little pet therapy. It’s something I anxiously look forward to.