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A Prescription for Smiles

By: Cindy Marbut

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        Agnes had always been quiet and withdrawn, never speaking more than a word or two at a time. Most of the staff just assumed that like many of our residents she suffered from dementia and simply had none of the thought process that would give rise to speaking in full sentences. But there was something about the look in her eyes that made me think we were missing the mark when it came to Agnes. She didn't have the vacant look that most of the truly senile folks did, and there was a sadness there that was hard to define.

        I had tried just sitting and talking with Agnes whenever my nursing duties allowed me a moment of free time, which was not often. But Agnes never responded, and I was never sure whether she was even aware of my presence or could understand my words. I had a nagging sense that there was something else I needed to do for Agnes; I just didn't know what it was.

        Discussing our residents with anyone outside of the staff is strictly prohibited, but I couldn't help sharing my concerns for Agnes with my close friend as we walked in the park with her dog.

        "Why don't you bring therapy animals into the facility?" she asked as though it was simply the most logical solution.

        "What do you mean by therapy animals?" I asked, having no idea what she was talking about.

        My friend explained to me that there are people, volunteers mostly, that bring their dogs and cats into facilities like the nursing home where I work just to spend time with the residents. The pets She said that they usually don't have any special training, they are just the types of pets that enjoy contact with people, enjoy being petted, and those with particularly soft, fluffy coats are favored amoung the residents for their very pleasant tactile stimulation.

I was astounded by the idea. While I enjoy dogs and cats as much as the next person, I had never thought of them in terms of what they could do for people, only what people had to do for them. My friend assured me that aside from allergies and the rare person who has a fear of dogs, there was no reason not to give it a try. And she promised me that Agnes would respond as she never had before. I remained skeptical, but my friend was so sure that I decided to look into the idea.

A quick internet search led me to Therapy Dogs, Inc. who put me in touch with some people in my area who had experienced therapy dogs. I explained the situation to them and they sent a volunteer with her dog to come visit Agnes the very next day. The volunteer was a sweet young woman with a small collie that had the most beautiful soft coat. She told me that "Tessa" was a favorite in nursing homes for several reasons. Her small size and fine features usually made her less frightening to those who might have had bad experiences with aggressive dogs in the past, her soft coat provided especially pleasant tactile responses, and her loving demeanor made the residents feel loved and cared for.

We brought Tessa out to the back garden where I had left Agnes sitting in the shade of a tree in her wheelchair. Before I had a chance to introduce the volunteer and Tessa to Agnes, Tessa had pulled to the end of her leash to get to Agnes, and Agnes was petting Tessa and smiling as I had never seen in the seven years she had lived in our facility. After several minutes of petting and talking to Tessa, Agnes looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said "Thank you."

I will probably never know what sort of memories or feelings Tessa triggered in Agnes, but her twice weekly visits have done more good for Agnes than all the medicine in the world. Now Agnes smiles, makes eye contact, and will even carry on a brief conversation. And probably most important of all, she decided, in her words "to get rid of that blasted chair," and walks every day in the garden with the aid of a walker or a staff person.

Now Tessa, Bailey (a goofy black Labrador), and Tigger (a shorthair Tabby cat) come to our facility every week. All the residents look forward to their visits. And as a nurse I can tell you that blood pressure readings are lower, use of pain medication has decreased, and smiles are far more common. What a gift these animals have given us.

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