Photographs by Lynda Shenkman Curtis
Above: Nathaniel Witherell residents George Rozsa and Nola Larkin with Skye
Mary Montella sat quietly in her wheelchair at Nathaniel Witherell, looking out a hallway window. Then a staff member wheeled her into the chapel to meet Rhys, a fluffy Old English sheepdog, and Finny, a sweet Tibetan terrier, and her demeanor changed. As Mary started petting the two therapy dogs—one for each hand—she sat up straighter, her face beamed with a big smile and her eyes got brighter. And then she looked deep into their eyes, engaging with each in a most special way.
“I just love them,” she says smiling. “They make me happy.”
Her reaction comes as no surprise to the staff. Justine Vaccaro, director of social work, says that what pets do for their residents, especially those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, is unparalleled. “Pets are consistent. No judgment. Just affection and comfort. They soothe and they interact, something our residents need. We often can’t get our residents to change their facial expressions, but the pets can. And when residents are agitated, the pets can bring ease and keep them from losing their patience.” In addition to improving mood, therapy pets can help to decrease anxiety, lower blood pressure and lessen boredom and loneliness.
Mary Tate, volunteer coordinator, says there is no special training for therapy pets, although all must be well-behaved, have a calm disposition and be comfortable around strangers and with being petted. She also notes that the owners should be outgoing and able to approach the residents.
Therapy pets have been an important part of the volunteer program at Nathaniel Witherell for more than a decade. “Pets take our residents back to a happier time, when they had a home and often a cat or dog of their own,” Mary says. “You just have to watch residents when they are around the pets to see the positive impact these animals have.”
Sheepdog Rhys is the third therapy dog of his owner, Sandy Woodard of Stamford, who began volunteering in 1999. Woodard talks about a recent visit with an almost 100-year-old woman that exemplifies why he finds working with the elderly so rewarding. “As soon as she saw Rhys, she lost sixty-five years and returned to a place long forgotten. Her face lit up, she smiled, and she was happy,” Woodard says. And that’s why he and Rhys keep returning.
POWER OF PETS
IN ADDITION TO WEEKLY VISITS FROM THERAPY PETS AND THEIR OWNERS, NATHANIEL WITHERELL USES PETS IN A VARIETY OF WAYS
Lisa Wysocki of Greenwich brings in her cat, Bootsie, who travels from resident lap to resident lap. Lisa enlisted the help of her friend, Greenwich’s Susan O’Leary, owner of Tibetan terrier Finny. The dog is the perfect wheelchair height for residents to pet him as they wait for Bootsie to land on their lap.
POOCHES ON PARADE
Quarterly, therapy dogs arrive en masse. The most recent extravaganza was the Halloween parade, where each dog came dressed in costume.
Their hair feels real, they meow, lick their paws, and after a few minutes of petting, begin to purr. “Our dementia and Alzheimer’s residents really don’t know the difference between the robots and the real thing,” said Justine Vaccaro, director of social work. “They bring the same comfort and ease.” Plus, they can visit resident rooms 24/7.
A PUG NAMED MERRY
Linda Marini, an administrative assistant, brings her pug to work, and many of the residents stop by daily to pet, play or just hang out.