Pet Animals bring good vibes to senior communities
Leony Hooks sits with her dog, Chica. Hooks has lived at Sweetwood for almost four years. Chica, adopted by Leony, is approximately 9 years old.
Photos by Kim Hubbard
To borrow a phrase from Charles Schulz, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” That just might be true if the practice of pet therapy is any indication. In a variety of settings, especially senior care, pet therapy has become a more accepted, and even welcome, medical practice.
Studies have shown that regular interaction with animals helps with many psychological symptoms like anxiety and depression, and may even provide aid managing degenerative conditions like dementia and physical health concerns like high blood pressure.
But it is in the less-measurable area of loneliness that animal-human interaction has shown some of its best results, with animals providing one-on-one companionship as well as interaction with other people via the animals. Loneliness has been shown to cause stress and the release of hormones that can cause inflammation, which can negatively affect heart health and lead to arthritis and Type 2 diabetes, is a factor in dementia, and plays a role in some suicides.
Many different types of senior-care facilities in the Berkshires have acknowledged the power of pet therapy and offer ways for their residents to interact with animals and sometimes even live with them.
Terry Cormier, chairperson of the pet-therapy program at Berkshire Medical Center, which she started in 2001, has seen interaction with dogs shift patients’ moods, prevent anxiety from escalating, and on one occasion inspire an unresponsive man to speak. Cormier has dogs visit both hospital patients and staff, as well as residents of Hillcrest Commons in Pittsfield, where the animals go to individual rooms, and common areas.
“What could be better on a boring day than to have a dog come and visit you?” asks Cormier, who has her therapy teams—pet and owner—train through the Pet Partners program for certification but doesn’t require trained therapists limit their work to BMC.
“The nice thing about our program is it’s open to everyone in Berkshire County,” Cormier explains. “You can get your dog certified and visit a library or nursing home or hospice. You can go anywhere.”
Some care facilities, like Mount Greylock Extended Care in Pittsfield, make use of several different types of visiting animals. “We have rabbits that come in on a daily basis, which residents love,” says activities director Hope Fontaine. “They’re in a basket or a baby carriage and residents pet and play with them for a little bit. One lady brought a horse.”
Mount Greylock also plays host to cats occasionally and even more unexpected guests. “One of our nurses has a farm and he brings in baby goats,” Fontaine says. “They stay here for the day and the residents absolutely love that. Some of them will sit for hours holding a baby goat.”
Not all therapy pets are restricted to visitor status. At the assisted-living community of Sweetwood of Williamstown, there are four cats, three dogs, and a few parakeets that are personal pets and have become friends to other residents. “Some of them have had their pet for over ten years,” says Aimee Boesse, director of marketing and community relations. “They consider it a family member.”
Having a pet is an option for residents who can still provide care for their pets, but some places mix the different concepts and concerns of pet therapy by offering a shared community pet. Williamstown Commons has fostered cats in its facility since 2003, so they aren’t permanent but they do live with the residents for a considerable amount of time. Activity director Janice Paquette reports that 53 cats have come through the program.
“The upstairs unit where the cat is based has beds for 60 residents,” Paquette says. “And there are many offices which the cat does have access to. Everybody really, really enjoys having the cat. It is kind of funny to see the cat walking down the hallway.”
Williamstown Commons also has featured a resident guinea pig for years, with the current guest being named Taco, as well as several birds. The facility also features visiting therapy dogs and encourages families to bring pets as appropriate. Paquette says that the presence of the animals not only helps the residents but also their visitors, helping to create a welcoming atmosphere for gatherings.
“It’s a nice way for them to interact by bringing their loved one to the activity room and then they can all interact with the animals,” says Paquette. “Sometimes they’re bringing grandchildren and great-grandchildren and they want to come and see Taco and want to come and play with the cat. It’s a nice way for intergenerational interactions.”
The success of these programs has been measured in the reaction of the residents, which in all locations has been unanimously positive. But it’s also measured in what the community staff sees with their own eyes—from the general mood of a facility being lifted by the presence of animals to singular moments of victory in the one-on-one encounters.
Sweetwood living––Dorothy Reinke, 98, keeps lovebirds, Beau and Bonnie.