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Animals enrich, enliven seniors’ lives

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Friday, November 20, 2009

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

ARCHDIOCESE — She’s tiny, cute and loves laps. With her very own nametag identifying her as volunteer, Zoe the Teacup Yorkie is a favorite visitor among the residents at St. Margaret Hall.

Her owner, Denise McLinden, is a firm believer in the joy and love pets can bring to senior citizens’ lives, especially those living in retirement facilities.

“They just beam when Zoe walks into the room,” said McLinden, who brings th three-and-one-half pound dog to visit every other Wednesday afternoon. “The residents take her in their arms and she just sits, and doesn’t get nervous. She can fit on a wheelchair lap or on a bed. You can see how she brightens the residents’ day and is very calming for them. She brings smiles to their faces.”

Jean Edington, a resident of St. Margaret Hall, enjoys a visit with Zoe, a Teacup Yorkie and official volunteer. (Courtesy photo)

McLinden hopes to have Zoe certified as a therapy pet in March, at which time the little dog will undergo obedience and temperament testing. Groups such as Therapy Pets of Greater Cincinnati, comprised of more than 200 pet partner teams registered with the Delta Society, provide animal-assisted activities and therapy to client facilities throughout the area, promoting the benefits of human-animal interaction.

Those benefits are well documented. Pet owners have lower blood pressure and report fewer headaches, bouts of indigestion and less difficulty sleeping. Pets can also help safeguard against depression or loneliness and have been known to reduce the number of visits to a doctor by an elderly person. In addition, they can help ease loss, especially for an older person whose spouse has died; he or she is less likely to experience deterioration in health if there is pet that needs care.

A life-long animal lover, Grace Brown was thrilled to learn she could bring her beloved cat SoEE (short for So Sweet) to live with her at St. Paul’s Archbishop Leibold Home for the Aged. It was a deciding factor in where she would spend her retirement years, Brown said.

She adopted the black-and-white feline from a local shelter six years ago, deciding that a calm, older cat would be a better match than a playful kitten who might outlive her. “SoEE has been a godsend,” she said. “She brought me comfort when my husband died of cancer and helped me adjust to widowhood. She’s a gem.”

Although she now calls a small, independent-living apartment home, Brown noted that cats adjust well to limited space. She encourages other seniors to adopt if they are able, citing the advantages of pet ownership. “If you’re depressed and don’t want to get out of bed, they’ll get you up. If you feel like the world has deserted you, they’ll give you a head bump, and you’ll know you’re important to someone.”

“Pets bring love to your life,” added Joyce Baitz, also a resident of the home and owner of a longhaired calico named Callie. “They keep you entertained, too. Callie loves to jump up on the sink and drink out of the faucet. I let her out in the hall sometimes, too, and she’s very good with the other residents and Sisters. They love petting her.”

Across town at Mercy Franciscan at West Park, Tara, a gray/black tabby is particularly fond of the maintenance men, according to her owner, Melba Cassidy, a resident for two-and-a-half years. “Tara brings me a lot of joy, contentment and peace. She’s someone for me to take care, something to love and a good companion,” said Cassidy.

Even if the policies of a particular retirement facility don’t permit pets, administrators recognize the benefits for residents and may arrange for regular visits by certified therapy animals or permit staff members’ to bring in their own pets. Such is the case at Mercy St. Theresa in Mariemont where Elsa, a Shepherd mix, accompanies her owner, Jeanne Bilyeu, director of activities and volunteers, to work each Friday.

“I’ve previously worked at facilities that had house animals and, while that’s not conducive here, pets are obviously important to some of the residents, so I started bringing Elsa,” Bilyeu explained. “Many of the residents have grown quite attached to her and, for several, it is the highlight of their week. Elsa doesn’t have any special training, but she’s very sweet and calm with the residents. She’s good therapy for many of them. It’s always amazing when we have a resident who may not be communicative verbally, but when we bring an animal into their presence, they start talking non-stop. Having an animal here makes it seem more like home for them than an institution.”

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