Ellie's puppies.

Therapy Dogs Visiting Seniors

Places where Wool 'n Wind therapy poodles provide help, promote healing, and produce hope.

My life has been punctuated by pets. As I shared in the last issue, throughout my years animals have been my go-to confidants and comforters. It was no surprise over a decade ago as I was facing one of the most emotionally difficult challenges of my life I sought solace in a canine companion.

My parents had retired in Florida. Shortly after establishing themselves as year-round residents, my mother began to show signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s. After a few years of frequent trips between Connecticut and the sunshine-state, it was clear that she would need residential care. As I went from one facility to another assessing the staff, the odor, the environment, and the décor, trying to imagine how my mother would integrate into each of these new communities, my heart was breaking.

Fortunately for me, my best friends (next door neighbors for twenty years) had also made the decision to fly south, and serendipitously ended up living only 10 miles from my parents. So, at the end of each of these grueling days of inquiry, assessment, and emotional torture, I would retreat to their home. It was here where I learned what Poodle Magic was all about.

Each day, I would pull the rental car into the driveway and Paisley would be waiting for me by the door. A one-year-old black Standard with no tail (docked like an OES – ugh!), “Missy P” had an uncanny ability to hone in on my mood. On the days when I felt empty, depleted of emotion and strength, she sat by my side, offering a paw, or her head on my lap, giving herself to me to ease the pain. On brighter days when the prospects were better and the possibilities a little less grim, she would meet me with a Frisbee dangling from her mouth, knowing that a little exercise was exactly what I needed. I was in awe of her innate empathy. She had a better understanding of my feelings than I did. She wasn’t my dog, but she ‘knew’ me.

As difficult as this experience was, I am grateful for having had it. It was because of this that I was led to my first poodle, and during this time, when I walked the halls of assisted living centers and memory care units that I thought about Poodle Magic, and how much of a difference these therapy dogs could make in the lives of the people who lined those halls.

It’s been over a decade since Paisley taught me about Poodle Magic, and I have come to rely on it every day since. My therapy dogs are in and out of a variety of venues, spreading their love and poodle joy. One place we visit often is a local convalescent home. This particular facility, Matulitis, is run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a religious order with deep Lithuanian roots. The people who line these halls are a mix of the area’s local aging residents, aging clergy, and a few Lithuanian immigrants who came to the US to be with family. Several residents do not speak English as their native language, and some struggle to speak at all. But they all speak ‘Poodle’.

The story of their lives is as diverse as any large group of unrelated people whether it is a school cohort, faith community, or a professional conference. And, like all intentional gatherings of unrelated people, they have one thing in common – one thing that brought them all together. With this group, the common denominator is old age.

They are the elders, whose lives have been lived raising families, developing careers, leading communities, caring for children, and parents … and for many … pets. And now, when the time has come for them to be cared for, they find themselves in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people, missing all the things that made their life unique.

Welcoming Therapy Poodles

Matulitis, like a growing number of Nursing Homes and Assisted Living facilities around the country, has recognized both physical and emotional therapeutic benefits of having pets in their facility. They have a standing Pet Policy in place to manage the practice of visiting companions. However, unlike the policies of many residential facilities, it is not meant to be a deterrent to the presence of therapy dogs in the building. It is there simply to assure resident safety. Their policy reads, “All residents are offered the opportunity to enjoy the companionship, contact, and closeness with animals.”

  • animals must have proof of vaccination
  • animals must wear tags
  • all dogs must be on a leash
  • handlers are requested to ask a resident’s permission before they approach with a dog
  • Pets are not allowed in the dining room during meals
  • Pets are not allowed in patient rooms during care delivery

And so, with the help of this very liberal policy and administrators who ‘get it’, Wool ‘n Wind therapy dogs can be seen frequently throughout the halls of this facility casting their magic and spreading their joy.

Therapy dogs visiting seniors

It is remarkable to see the expressions of those gathered in the hall as the poodles emerge from the stairwell. There are smiles that spread across their faces and shine through their eyes. A woman in a wheelchair, fell victim to a stroke and no longer speaks. But whenever the poodles visit, she smiles brightly and spouts a very clear ‘Woof.’ This same woman needs to exercise her hands to maintain their mobility so she can hold a utensil and feed herself – to hold on to the last vestiges of her independence. She struggles to bend her fingers with the exercises the Occupational Therapist gives her, yet they can curl back and forth into tight fists and open palms, almost like she’s kneading bread dough, while she loses herself in the soft coat of a top knot of our therapy dog.

Another patient is less open to a friendly hand and struggling through this unfortunate end with more anger than acceptance, but every time the poodles arrive I knock on her closed door to ask if she would like a visit.  Every time she waves us in, pats her bed to call one up, weaves her fingers into their curls and shares one of her many treasured stories of her former life as the owner of Labradors. When she says the word ‘dog’ you can see life flow through her once again.

There is a married couple down the hall, he by the door, and she by the window. When the dogs enter their room, his face reminds me of Santa Claus: round, full, and joyful. She sits across the room, with her stuffed collie on her bed, a sure sign that dogs were important in their earlier lives. She has a look of gratitude watching her husband play with the pups. It is like watching true symbiosis; as he looks happier, she looks more peaceful.  It seems clear these visits remind her of happy moments in their younger life. Her expression tells me there was joy in those years and value in these visits.

When we leave the couple’s room and walk back into the hall we are stopped by one of the nurses. “My Turn!” he says as he squats down and scoops up a poodle in each arm. He too, has a smile that says these dogs make a difference. “I’m so glad you brought them in today. They make everyone so happy!”

Our time is over and we head back toward the stairwell. There is a gathering of residents and their families under the skylight. Poodles being poodles, they have to stop. There are idle hands waiting to pat them; there is a gathering of humans they must love. While they barge in on a family visit, they provide a conduit for a fading parent to reclaim a long-forgotten memory and share it with their visiting son. They are the catalyst for many to connect with a long forgotten childhood.  You can almost see it happen as a silent elder begins to pick up their drooping head; a smile replaces the previous look of vacancy or fear, and they begin to share a story.  Poodles are capable of transforming the lives that line these halls, just as I imagined they would be. We make these visits, my dogs and I, in some way, to honor my mother. These incredible dogs came to me because of her, and I want to share them with others who are need of the compassion that radiates from them.  These dogs are so patient and friendly.  Like Paisley was with me, they are ‘honed in’ to every elder on their visiting list – using their innate empathy to connect with each person and leave them feeling just a little better than they were before we came.   And that is Poodle Magic. It’s a wonderful thing!

About the Author

Donna Grant is a life-long breeder of registered livestock and purebred dogs. For the last ten years she has bred Standard Poodles under the Wool ‘n Wind kennel name. She is a licensed Social Worker in CT where she has spent most of her career working with adolescents and has found her Poodles to be her single greatest resource when connecting with at-risk youth. To contact her with information about other Poodles doing purposeful work, you can email Donna at donnagrant@woolnwind.com.

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