Seniors enjoy canine guests

Pets: Program brings animal companions on weekly visits to nursing homes, other facilities.

April 29, 2003|By Jessica Valdez | Jessica Valdez,SUN STAFF

Clutching the kitchenette counter for balance, Lillian Fried weakly bends her frail body to pat a 55-pound white dog sprinkled with sandy-colored specks.

"I have something for you," says Fried, a resident of Brighton Gardens, an assisted-living community in Columbia. She fumbles to open a bag of dog treats and then hesitatingly holds out a handful of dog biscuits. "I bought these just for you, Kismet," she says as she happily watches the dog lick the treats from her trembling hand.

"Kismet enjoys the attention, and people enjoy being with her," says Kismet's owner, Elliot Shefrin, as he firmly grasps her leash.

Wearing a blue Pets on Wheels T-shirt, he adds that he and Kismet have been volunteering for Pets on Wheels for about a year. Shefrin and Kismet visit Brighton Gardens twice a month as volunteers for the Howard County Pets on Wheels program, which sends volunteers and their pets to nursing homes and assisted-living communities.

"Our mission is to provide pet visitation for the elderly," said Tricia Robson, program coordinator.

More than 55 pets and their owners participate in the program, breaking the monotony and solitude of residents' lives.

"The pets reach out to residents in a special way," said Sheila Kiani, director of activities at Brighton Gardens. "It's a common thread. It allows them the opportunity to express a little about themselves."

Lori Yancey, who volunteers with her daughters at Heartlands Retirement Community in Ellicott City, said the pets often encourage residents to speak about their pets. "It's an ice breaker, and I think there's something therapeutic about it," she said. "They look on these dogs with fond memories of their animals."

Thelma Hoffa-Krainak and her Shetland sheep dog, Tex, have been volunteering at Brighton Gardens since the home opened four years ago. "I think more people respond to dogs," she said. "Everybody feels the dog is nonjudgmental."

She takes treats on her weekly visits so residents can bribe Tex to do tricks.

"My mother passed away in 1998 and she went to Wintergreen," she said. "I just appreciate what Alzheimer's does to people and I want to feel I am helping out."

Not every pet can visit assisted-living homes. Animals must pass a behavior and health evaluation before they can participate in the program.

"We look for pets that are confident and outgoing and not shy in new situations because the places we're sending them to are so different than their home," said Robson. "[We want] pets that you would have to stress so much before they scratch or bite."

Put to the test

The animals are put through a temperament test, said Shefrin, in which Robson and an assistant purposefully stress or annoy the pet to see how it will react. They tap the dog's stomach, ears and other sensitive body parts, and then they intentionally startle the dog to see if it reacts violently. They can determine how the dog is going to act in any situation, Shefrin said, and this ensures the pet will not be rough with elderly residents who might not know how to behave around animals.

At Sommerford Place, a resident stepped on Kismet's ear. While many dogs would respond by biting, Kismet whined until Shefrin asked the resident to move. Most Pets on Wheels participants are dogs, except for three cats, said Robson.

Making a match

After pets pass the temperament test, the volunteers are assigned to facilities consistent with their capabilities. "We match them up with a facility that's with their comfort level," said Robson. "Very often, we get younger people, preteens, or parents and a child, and we generally put them in an assisted-living home, since nursing homes are now basically hospitals."

Volunteers since last year, Lori Yancey and her two daughters, Olivia, 14, and Emma, 11, are limited to the assisted-living areas of Heartlands Retirement Community. But they have become so popular that if they miss a week, residents will clamor to know where they have been and ask the home to call the family.

"Some of the residents I know really well," said Olivia. "One gentleman, he's very shy and seeing Maggie, he'll begin to talk. It's a great way to see the people."

Program's origins

Howard County Pets on Wheels was founded by the Office on Aging in 1982 and is now independent of the government, said Robson, although it receives a grant from the county that provides less than half of its operating costs.

"The Howard County organization is a program loosely connected to Pets on Wheels Inc., which oversees the programs across the country," said Robson. She said volunteers share the relationship they have with their dogs with others.

"They care how much their pet affects others," Robson said. "[They know] how much enjoyment they get from their pet and they want to share it with other people," Robson said.

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