Animals Add Love, Excitement at Senior-Living Centers

12:55 PM, Sep 2, 2008   |    comments
Paul Mancinelle, a resident at the Silverado Senior Living Aspen Park Community, enjoys the company of Marlee, a red kangaroo. Some nursing homes and senior-living centers have "facility pets" that live there year-round. Others allow people to bring their pets with them. (By Jeffrey D. Allred for USA TODAY)
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By Sharon L. Peters, Special for USA TODAY

The pitter-patter of little feet is an increasingly common sound at nursing homes and senior-living residences.

Dogs, cats and rabbits are roaming the halls, lounging about on common-area sofas and warming the beds at a growing number of residences and extended-care facilities. Most of the creatures are "resident pets" or "community pets" rescued from shelters to live in the facility full time and spread their love to all who reside there. Some are animals that residents brought with them.

"Animals are all-accepting. They don't care about whatever issues a person might have," says Noralyn Snow, administrator at the Silverado Senior Living Aspen Park Community in Salt Lake City, home to 100 memory-impaired residents, seven dogs, six cats, 40 birds and a baby kangaroo named Marlee who can coax a smile out of even the most recalcitrant senior. "And having pets around adds excitement and spontaneity."

"People grow up with animals, have had them all their lives, and this is their home now, so why wouldn't they have pets here?" says Helene King, communication coordinator for Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, one of 300 facilities worldwide operating under the "Eden Alternative" philosophy, which integrates animals, plants and contact with children into daily routines to keep the elderly engaged. "It makes such a big difference in their lives."

Levindale's eight resident cats and scores of resident birds and fish (plus several dogs that are day visitors) relax residents when they're agitated, draw out those who have retreated into silence, and reduce the "loneliness, helplessness and boredom" that so many elderly feel, King says.

Until recent years, most administrators took a dim view of the notion of animals living in such facilities. There were concerns about allergies or people tripping over animals; worries about bites and scratches; and much consternation about the insurance implications.

Turns out that if well-managed, there's nary a problem. "We just haven't experienced a downside," King says.

In fact, the mishap potential is greater for the animals than for the people, because it's possible for pets to slip out when doors are open, be injured by wheelchairs and be overlooked when they should be fed, exercised or taken for potty breaks or to the vet. Most facilities negate those risks by enacting strict rules and careful monitoring of the animals; some have a full-time pet-care staffer.

Silverado, which operates 17 facilities in California, Texas and Utah – all boasting a menagerie of live-in creatures – has created a 40-page manual (required reading for all staff) and spends about $600,000 a year caring for community pets and the pets that residents brought with them.

"Animals re-engage people with life," says Loren Shook, who decades ago saw the positive effect of animals on the patients at the psychiatric hospitals where his family worked. Now, as CEO of Silverado, he has instituted a must-have-animals policy at all 17 facilities. "Having animals in our facilities reduces depression and anxiety and reduces the need for psychotropic drugs by 35%."

And Marlee the kangaroo in his Salt Lake City facility – loaned by a breeder who will reclaim her in a few months when adolescence makes her too rambunctious – is especially effective. "The novelty of a kangaroo creates reactions and discussions," Shook says.

Another upside is that live-in dogs, cats and birds make such a place seem more like home and less like an institution.

Moreover, when someone can bring his own pet when he moves in, it makes a big difference in the speed and degree of adjustment to the new environment. "They've given up so much," Snow says. "But they don't have to give up their best friend."

Being able to bring along Gygi when he moved into the Aspen Park community in Salt Lake was extremely important to his owner, Doss Dean. "He is my family," he says of the sweet-natured papillon. "He keeps me company. He makes me smile."

The Noah's Ark approach, however, isn't everyone's idea of perfect. Sometimes the families of would-be residents arrive to check out such a facility and comment that they don't especially like the idea of pets roaming about. "We say that if that's the case, we're really not the right place for you," Snow says. "The animals are part of what we are."

Still, human-animal interaction is not forced. Pet-averse residents can hang a sign on the door of their room advising staff that animals are to keep out, and they can avoid or ignore the pets in the common areas. "The animals figure out really fast who to go to and who not to," Snow says.

They also seem to figure out really fast that their job is to connect with as many residents as possible, but breaks are permitted. "The pets get a lot of love and attention all day, but there are nooks and crannies where they can go when they want alone time. The cats have cat hotels that they return to when they want," King says.

One of the Levindale cats, however, has rejected the usual break-time convention. Veronica the sleek gray short-hair decided some time ago that one of the residents is her special person. So after the feline has socialized with everyone and decides it's nap time, "she can always be found," King says, "curled up in this one lady's room."

USA TODAY

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