Animals and the Elderly: A Healing Combination
By Philip Devitt
A frail old man is slowly dying on a stiff, weathered mattress. He cannot walk, he cannot speak, and he can barely see or hear. His cries of pain are almost inaudible. They surely do not reach beyond the walls of his small, cold room at the nursing facility that he calls home now. The room is warm and reeks of medication. It is a constant struggle to blink without falling asleep, and to swallow without having to be reminded.
It has been a rough week for the old man. Just days ago, he witnessed the death of his longtime roommate, a guy who was a lot like him. They fought in the same war, received the same medals of Honor, and lived out the rest of their lives in similar ways. When they both ended up in the same nursing home, they were inseparable. But when his roommate died, so did the old man’s sense of importance in the world. After all, his roommate was the only one who really treated him with dignity. He acknowledged him as another human with a history, with emotions, with a soul.
The television provides most of the noise now, in place of the familiar voice of the old man’s only friend. It passes the time. Regardless, he cannot escape the sadness. And although it may seem that nothing can bring him out of his suffering, just put a kitten in his arms and none of that matters anymore.
If the old man is like others in nursing homes throughout the nation, a big smile will spread across his face, and for a moment or two, he will feel the way he did when he was little, or when he got married, or when he witnessed the birth of his children. He will be completely happy, and for a short time, he will forget where he is.
Pet therapy has proven itself once again.
Doctors and scientists around the country have discovered that contact with animals is good for a person’s mental and physical health. And this does not apply only to kittens. Animals ranging from puppies to pigs and goats to geese all have the ability to make people in difficult situations feel better about themselves. People are seeing the positive effects of pet therapy for the elderly and disabled, and they are seizing opportunities to bring it into their own communities.
One of these people is my neighbor, Melanie. In 2002, she began what was southern New England’s only pet therapy business. When word spread about the company, it quickly became reputable. Nursing homes throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island recognized how beneficial pet therapy could be to residents, and the company’s list rapidly grew to over 80 homes.
In early 2004, Melanie asked me whether I would be interested in assisting her. Initially, I turned her down. I suppose it was out of fear. I was scared of seeing old, suffering people who were helpless in their conditions. I was afraid of screwing things up and ruining the business.
My thoughts soon turned to my grandmother who died of brain and lung cancer in 2002. In a matter of months, she went from being fun and vivacious, to weak, shriveled, and balding. She became incapacitated, and forgot things that no one should have to forget. I realized that there were thousands of people in nursing homes who suffer just like she did, but have no family to support them. When they breathe their last hoarse breaths, their grandchildren will not be by their sides. That is why I changed my mind about Melanie’s proposal, and at the start of the school year, knocked on her door to see if the position was still available. Thankfully, it was.
Nursing homes provide a great service to the elderly. When they are no longer able to live independently, they are given the freedoms to sleep, eat, and socialize in safe settings where there is always a doctor or nurse on call. Some families place the elderly in nursing homes because they have no other option. They are incapable of caring for them on their own, so the most loving, noble thing they can do is surrender their care to someone else. Other elderly people are not so fortunate. They come from families that never cared about them to begin with, families that see them as a burden, and the nursing home as the perfect place to dispose of them forever.
But no matter what the circumstances of their arrival are, their lives in the homes are almost always the same. The mobile residents spend hours trudging up and down the same hallways, secretly hoping for something new and different to happen, or just for someone to talk to. And those who cannot do anything for themselves must live with the frustration of being prodded, changed, wiped, and washed nearly every minute. The same meals are served at the same times each day, and the rooms are locked at the same times each night. This safe, yet monotonous lifestyle is lived between the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights that cover every inch of the ceiling, and the white, gleaming floor tiles that have had all the warmth and humanity polished out of them.
The elderly live in atmospheres that are completely devoid of stimuli. Their minds are no longer challenged in the way minds should be. They always know what to expect and have nothing to anticipate anymore. Days are so alike that they blend into each other after a while, and it is easy to lose track of time. The residents do what they are expected to do because they know it gets them through the day. They eventually accept their lives, even though they lack mental, social, spiritual, emotional, and physical stimulation.
When I arrived at my first nursing home, still unsure about whether or not pet therapy was for me, a bitter rain fell from dark, low-hanging clouds that blocked out the sun and all traces of its light. Fierce winds nearly knocked me over as I struggled to unload the animals from the back of the company van. There was only one cage this day, instead of the two Melanie usually brought. She said that she wanted to make my first day simple. I was seriously questioning my ability to go through with this, but I could not turn back now. I draped a black blanket over the cage to protect the animals from the rain, and quickly wheeled it in.
I immediately found myself inside a long, dimly-lit corridor. I was looking for the activity room, and I figured that this hallway would lead me to it. As I walked further down the hall, I noticed that there were several wheelchair-bound residents parked on either side of me. As I passed them, they all looked at me in the same solemn way. Tears welled up in their eyes, and they shook their heads from side to side. Some of them spoke to each other in quiet, nervous mumbles, while others quickly looked away as if the sight of me and my cart was too painful to watch. At the end of the hallway, one woman, overcome with emotion, made the sign of the cross and reached out to touch the animal crate. I later realized that they all mistook the draped cage for a body bag and stretcher, and mistook me for the coroner.
The activity room was filled to capacity when I finally arrived. I hoped the residents there would be more understanding of what I was there to do than the ones who greeted me with sobs and prayers in the hall. Several of the residents at the front of the room greeted me with friendly “hellos” and warm smiles, yet I felt more uncomfortable than I had in a long time. It seemed that for every healthy resident there, there were two on the verge of death. One gaunt man was in the middle of a violent coughing fit when I entered the room, and a weak woman next to him fell out of her seat and landed hard on the floor. I saw several people who looked like they were in chronic pain, and a few others with labored breathing. It was hard not to feel helpless standing before these people.
When I was ready, I lifted the blanket off of the cage, and the animals were suddenly the focus of everyone’s attention. Many of the residents applauded and giggled at the sight of small puppies chasing their tails and six week old kittens wrestling with each other within the cage. They pointed and shouted with enthusiasm, and negotiated with each other over who would get to hold what animal first. When I lifted that blanket, I also lifted a tension in the room that I had not even noticed was there. The residents -- some of whom had lived at the home for decades -- had never seen anything like this before. The animals were new and exciting. In a single moment, a vitality was restored in the room that had been missing for a long time.
The residents continued to cough and used tubes and machines to breathe; they were just as sick as they were before I had arrived. Yet, somehow, just looking at the animals made them feel much better than any medication could. When they held a rabbit or a dog, a void was filled inside of them. They got back a part of themselves that they had completely forgotten about -- a part of themselves that they lost over time or were stripped of at the door.
As I walked around the room placing various animals in the laps of the residents, all of my anxiety dissipated. For a short time, I forgot that I was at a nursing home and that the people I was interacting with were born seven, eight, and even nine decades before me. Even though many of them could barely move, they were energetic, personable, and excited. Like eager kindergarten children, they asked me countless questions about the animals and listened intently for my answers. How old are these kittens? What do these rabbits like to eat? Do the puppies sleep a lot? Are they well taken care of? I told them everything I knew, and when I was not completely sure, I made up answers. I did not want them to be disappointed.
Over the last few years, many researchers have picked up on the health benefits of pet therapy for the elderly and the disabled. National studies have confirmed that animals have many therapeutic effects upon humans. Stroking a pet can be a meditative experience that relieves stress and lowers blood pressure. It serves as a distraction from physical and emotional pain. It gives a sense of purpose to those who feel worthless and companionship to those who feel isolated. And it also encourages residents to become more active, as they must use their hands, arms and legs when they tend to the animals.
For some of the residents I interacted with, the animals served as keys to their pasts. When they held puppies or kittens close to their bodies, they remembered similar pets they had when they were young. As one elderly woman ran her fingers back and forth over the coat of a chocolate lab, she told me how her lab Franklin had given her comfort when her father went away to war and never returned. She was not even ten when her father died. For the rest of that therapy session, she kept the dog at her side and called it Franklin. It reminded her of happier times.
Residents who were known for being despondent and uncommunicative opened up when I placed an animal in their laps. They smiled for the first time in years, and talked about how good the animals made them feel. They were the ones who asked me so many questions and had the most energy. It was as though they had been waiting years for something to reawaken their lively personalities. The animals did not treat them differently than they would treat anyone else. They did not judge them based on their physical or mental handicaps. Instead, they jumped up on them, licked their faces, and fell asleep in their arms. The residents gave them love and attention, and the animals gave the same back to them.
By the winter of 2004, I finally felt like I knew what I was doing. I knew what to expect when I walked in the doors of each new nursing home. I pictured the smiles on the residents’ faces when I would hand them an animal. There was no longer a pit in my stomach or a general sense of dread about seeing the suffering of each resident. Instead, I was concerned with how the animals I brought could ease their suffering, if only for a little while. I imagined that the pet therapy sessions were to the residents what tropical vacations were to busy city workers. Just like a week in the Bahamas can relax the mind of a stock broker, animals have the power to calm the elderly.
I established relationships with several nursing homes in southern New England, and began to visit them on weekly bases. Whenever I glanced at my schedule, I looked forward to going back to the homes, some a little more than others. However, I will never forget the facility that I visited most often, South Coast Nursing Center in Somerset, Massachusetts. The activity department there saw a great need for pet therapy after my first visit. The residents there were in a special program, and they had never responded to anything the way they responded to the animals. And for these residents, any response was a good response. They all suffered from Alzheimer’s.
The activity room at the Alzheimer’s unit of South Coast looked no different from the countless other activity rooms I had seen. But all I had to do was spend a few minutes inside before I realized how drastically different it was. When I looked around the room at the residents, I could see the sickness and sadness in all of their faces. The hopelessness in some of their eyes was frightening. It was not uncommon to see a woman sitting alone in a corner whispering to herself, while a withered man tottered around mumbling incoherently. It was commonplace to see a seemingly normal woman holding an intense conversation with an empty chair, while another woman pointed and hissed at every passerby.
I realized that Alzheimer’s covers a wide spectrum of people. It is not about waking up one day to find that all memories are gone. It is about the excruciatingly slow deterioration of the mind and its ability to control the body. It is just as much about physical decline as it is about mental decline. It devastates lives and disconnects people from reality. And yet, these residents who were supposedly detached from the real world and logical thinking were the ones I felt closest to by the end of my experience.
Among the many things I learned about Alzheimer’s at South Coast was that it can strike anyone at any time. It affects not only the elderly, but middle-aged men and women who are at the top of their careers, young people just starting out on their own, and even mothers of small children.
During one of my visits to South Coast, I met a young woman sprawled on a stretcher. I looked back and forth between her and the other residents and noticed that some of them were old enough to be her parents or grandparents. I thought about how unfortunate it was that she had been afflicted with Alzheimer’s at such a young age. I was told that she was the mother of two young children, but her condition would not allow her to see them grow. She looked extremely pallid and frail to me. There appeared to be no muscle or fat separating her skin from her skeleton, and it took great effort for her to move without wailing in pain. I glanced over at her periodically while tending to the other residents, and I noticed that her facial expression never changed. Her eyes were open extremely wide, as was her mouth, even when she was silent.
Even though the woman was so close to death that she could not hold anything or lift her hands, a nurse suggested that seeing an animal up close might give her some consolation. I grabbed a black puppy from the cage and held it at eye level with the woman. Her right hand shook for a moment in an effort to touch the puppy, but she was content with just looking at it when her fingers failed her. I noticed that her mouth moved to form a smile, and as she gazed intently at the animal, two tears streamed down her face.
Not all of my memories of the Alzheimer’s unit are somber, though. One night, a fully grown goat chewed through a rope that had bound him to the animal cage. I was on the other side of the room showing a woman how to hold a rabbit. Suddenly, I heard a high pitched shriek, and when I turned around, the goat was galloping wildly down the hall. The on call nurse jumped on top of a table as if she had seen a rat scurry across the floor.
My heart pounded. I had never encountered a situation like this before. My face became flushed and I dashed across the room, foolishly thinking I would eventually catch up to the goat. As it picked up speed, the bell on its collar jingled louder and louder, and some of the residents started laughing. Others applauded. I could not tell who they were cheering for -- me or the goat -- but the outlandish scene amused nearly everyone in the room. The goat darted back down the hall and circled around the residents several times. As they delighted in watching me try to keep up with it, a few shouted “Go get ’em!” and “’At a boy!” The laughter was clearly at my expense, but it was laughter nonetheless. I was sure that nothing as bizarre as this had ever been seen in the activity room. And I was pleased to know that as damaged as their minds were, the residents still had senses of humor.
Each time I visited, the residents felt more and more comfortable around the animals. They looked forward to the weekly visits because they knew the animals gave them a purpose. They realized that when they held an animal, it was their responsibility -- they were in charge. They viewed the animals as children-- precious, innocent creatures that deserve love and protection.
Millie, a woman in her mid eighties, was especially vocal. She was a short woman with big round glasses and dark red hair. One night, she stood beside me at the cage for the entire therapy session. In a brash voice that reminded me of Sophia’s on The Golden Girls, she asked me if I needed assistance. “I like helping out,” she said. She pointed to the animals in the cage. “It’s best that I keep an eye on this livestock. They always have to be watched.” I later found out that when Millie was younger, she volunteered for many organizations and got to do the “helping out” she was still so passionate about. The animals provided a way for her to do that again -- to recall a part of her personality that had been forgotten. For one hour, the animals were her responsibility, and she loved it.
Millie was not the only person affected by the animals in this way. There were dozens of people at each nursing home who were visibly changed simply by the touch of an animal. They expressed emotions that they had suppressed for years. They talked about their childhoods, their careers, their entire lives, because they felt there were finally others willing to listen -- even if they were covered in fur.
I listened, too, and was able to have many interesting discussions with the residents. They were just as friendly to me as they were to the animals I placed in their arms. They were appreciative that I brought the pets to them, and they expressed their gratitude through warm smiles and friendly dialogue. I learned a lot from listening to them, and was amazed that no matter how long they had been away from society, they always had a lot to say. The conversations were never dull.
I frequently reflect on my visits to Clifton Nursing Home, also in Somerset, Massachusetts. Some of the residents there were too sick to leave their rooms, so I brought the animals to them one at a time. Although this was not what I was used to, it allowed me to connect with the residents in a more intimate way. I sat alone with them, laughed with them, and talked with them about their lives.
The first room I ever visited at Clifton belonged to a skinny, white-haired woman in her mid-nineties. When I walked in, she was at the far end of the room, staring out of her window at the parking lot. She was sitting in a wheelchair, and had four blankets draped over her lap, even though the heat was on full blast. She did not notice I was there at first. Her attention was focused on the commotion in the parking lot. A hearse was parked out front. Someone had just died, or was about to die. The woman did not glare at the hearse in fear, and she did not panic. She looked at it for what it was -- a sight she was accustomed to -- and nothing else. It was as though the mail truck had just stopped by to make its daily delivery.
An episode of Wheel of Fortune was on her television at a blaring volume. I got the impression that television shows were no longer things she watched for entertainment, or even to pass the time. Rather, the television produced noises other than the sound of her own voice, and it created the illusion that her room was a busy place, full of crazy characters, and not the drab, lonely place it really was.
I was hesitant to disturb the woman, and I decided to come back later. But before I could leave the room, she turned from the window and smiled at me. She spotted the brown puppy I had in my arms, and gestured me over to her. “Isn’t he just so precious?” she said as I walked to the other side of the room. “How precious! How precious! And adorable too!” she exclaimed. “You’re not so bad yourself.” she quipped, looking up at me through her large, round glasses. I handed the puppy to her, and she let out an endearing chuckle as it immediately fell asleep on the pile of fluffy blankets covering her lap.
I saw tears form in her eyes when she looked down at the puppy. “He’s just like a baby,” she whispered. “Just like a little baby all wrapped up in this fuzzy blanket. Would you look at that?” As I reached over to pet the sleeping dog, she grabbed my hand and expressed her appreciation. “It’s really kind of you to do this,” she said. “This is really great for the animals and for us. Thank you.” She looked in my eyes and I felt her sincerity.
The woman talked to me about her life growing up on a Kentucky farm in the early 1900s, and how she was constantly surrounded by animals. She told me it had been decades since she last had contact with any animals, so my visit was especially meaningful. I found that I was incredibly comfortable talking to her and it felt like I had known her for years. She asked me how old I was, what town I lived in, and how much school had changed since she graduated high school in 1929.
At the end of my visit with the woman, she wheeled herself over to her bureau and asked me to open the bottom drawer. It was filled to the top with bags and boxes of candy. “Where did you get this stash?” I asked in astonishment. She explained that her children bring them to her every time they visit but that she gets sick if she has too many. “I save them for people I like,” she said. I was not in the mood for candy, but I took some to make her happy, wished her well, and moved on.
The whole time I was in the woman’s room, it was evident that she was very ill. Her voice was raspy, she had difficulty breathing, and the table next to her bed was covered with medicine bottles. But she did not discuss her illness even once. She did not talk about why she took medication, why she was in a wheelchair, or how she ended up in the nursing home to begin with. Even though her ability to move and communicate was hindered, she continued to live her life, and refused to feel sorry for herself. All she wanted was to have a conversation with someone that did not involve talk of sickness and death. All she wanted was someone or something to love, and to love her back. I realized then why the residents adored the animals so much.
Although pet therapy is becoming more widespread in America, it still does not have the same respect as more commonplace forms of therapy. The only way we can make it a successful national endeavor is if it is a local endeavor first. Running a pet therapy business is an immense responsibility and it takes someone with a lot of passion to maintain it. But I know that the rewards are worth it all.
My experiences made me realize how important pet therapy really is. I never encountered one resident who had a negative experience with the animals, and I never left a nursing home feeling like I had failed. It is true that the residents were much older than me, but I learned that we were not all that different. We came from completely separate eras and lived in completely separate worlds, but the animals bridged us together. When I placed a kitten, a puppy, or a rabbit in their arms, our happiness was mutual.
The results I got from pet therapy are truly amazing. But they cannot be explained in percentages, statistics, and bar graphs. Rather, the results are in each person that the animals touched -- some now dead and some still living -- who were made a little more happy and a little more hopeful because they were cared for in an unforgettable way.
© Philip Devitt