ERATH – The next time you visit Erath’s Lahasky Nursing Home, you may be greeted by a friendly four-footed canine with a wagging tail or the nonchalant swagger of a fickle feline or the airy hum of batting avian wings.
But don’t think you are visiting a zoo.
Two weeks ago, the Lahasky Nursing Home launched a new pet therapy program.
The dog’s name is Jane, by the way, and the cat is known as Baxter.
The parakeets are Pete (the purple one) and Joe (the teal one), and the cockateals are Leroy and C.B.. But only Donna Hungerford, Lahasky’s Activities Director and her crew, and probably the residents themselves, could tell you which of the cocateals is which.
Most all agree, however – residents, employees, administrators, and family members – that the recent appearance of the nursing home’s new residents is a welcome change.
Pet Therapy in History
Pet therapy began in York Retreat, England, in 1792 when the Society of Friends introduced animals to mental hospitals. In the United States, the process of mingling pets with people in health care facilities began at the Army Air Corps Convalescent Center in Pauling, New York, in 1944. At that center, run by the American Red Cross, patients interacted with farm and pet animals. Unfortunately, the program was discontinued after World War II.
The pet therapy movement found impetus again 20 years ago and has since been used with coronary patients, hospitalized psychiatric patients, emotionally disturbed youth, prison inmates, and the elderly.
A study by C. M. Brickle in 1979 showed positive social behavior changes, a decrease in patients’ sense of loneliness and social withdrawal, and an increase in patients’ positive interactions to staff when dogs were brought into a nursing home. The use of cats has shown that nursing home residents are more receptive to therapy.
These studies, and a recent airing of a 48 Hours episode entitled "The Garden of Eden," prompted Lahasky Nursing Home Administrator Ed Hannie, II, to bring Jane and Baxter, et. al., to the residents of the nursing home in Erath.
"That segment of the show had some astonishing numbers in their therapy results," said Hannie.
"Basically 75 percent of the residents there were off of psychotropic drugs, and there were 25 percent less deaths in the facility because of the pets," Hannie explained.
"The next day, I had a number of people – employees, families, and residents – ask me about the possibility of having the same thing here. I said ‘I don’t see why not’," and with that, the project began, said Hannie.
Implementing a New Nursing Plan
The nursing home staff started making phone calls.
"We found someone who had a real friendly cat that they just didn’t want. Somebody had some birds they wanted to give us. One of the nurses here knew of a dog that was very calm and very friendly. So we decided to do that. We sent everybody to the vet and got all their shots and everything," Hannie explained, unintentionally anthropomorphizing the animals he has know for only the past two weeks. (When it was noted that he had just referred to the animals as "everbody" he said, "well they are, Jane especially, just like humans, you know.")
Other phone calls were in order as well.
"I contacted the state to find out if there were any legal means we needed to go through to do this," said Hannie. He explained that in hospitals the dogs who visit must be certified.
He found out, however, that in nursing homes they do not have to be.
"The state has always viewed nursing homes as ‘this is their house; this is their home.’ It shouldn’t be any different now than their own house," Hannie said.
That lenient philosophy has allowed the nursing home to bring a bit of home – in the guise of feathered and fury friends -- to their residents.
Pet Therapy at Lahasky
And so they came – the feathered, the feline, and the flickering tail.
"For the most part it was a real good bonding from the very first minute they stepped through the door," said Hannie after a few "scratchy" moments between the dog and the cat.
"There were a couple of people that were anxious and had a little anxiety attack when they saw the dog or the cat," but everything has pretty much quieted down now, said Hannie.
"The dog basically walks around, comes up to people in wheelchairs, and puts her head in their laps," Hannie described. "She shakes hands and stuff. She’s very friendly. Everybody loves her."
In only two weeks, Hannie has seen noticeable changes.
"Some of the psych patients we have here have warmed up to her a lot. They call her their dog instead of the facility’s dog. They take turns walking her outside and doing things. These people were pretty much to themselves. And now everyone looks forward to seeing the dog and the cat," he said.
Much to her own chagrin, the dog doesn’t get to say inside the nursing home all the time. She sleeps out back in a kennel at night, and she has to go out during meals.
"She’s not too happy about that during meals. It’s cute. She’s staring through the window and she’s barking wanting to come in. She’s got to stay outside, but she’s pretty vocal about ‘please let me in’," laughed Hannie.
It is a dog's life to give up begging at the table rights, but Jane has proved her metal elsewhere.
"There is one patient who was not comatose but just out of it," said Hannie. When staff members whet to visit her room for "sensory stimulation," they took Jane with them.
"The lady just all of the sudden came out of where ever she was. She acknowledged the dog. She didn’t acknowledge any of us. But all of a sudden she is acknowledging the dog," said Hannie.
"Her family is pretty excited about it. Maybe the dog’s done something for her. I don’t know. But it’s working, whatever it is," he added.
Baxter, the cat, has been less interesting according to the staff. But resident Marie Bernard would disagree.
She places a pillow case on the meeting room sofa for Baxter to sleep on next to her during the day. When she hugs him close, she speaks French to him.
Both these animals "are hams," said Hannie. They will "probably live the happiest life any dog or cat could possibly live over here.
"It brings back a lot off memories for the residents of when they had pets at their houses. You can hear them talking about it – ‘when I had my house, I had such and such. Jane is real nice, just like my dog I used to have’," Hannie added.
The newly developed pet therapy is not only good for the residents, it’s beneficial to the staff as well.
Hannie said, "When the employees see the dog, they will take time out to pet her. She likes it; the employees like it; it breaks up the monotony of the day. It’s like they totally forget the problems they are having and the dog is the focus of their attention.
"Jane is like an employee. She knows exactly what to do when she comes through the facility. Her job is to make everybody happy and she’s got this happy look on her face and she’s got this wagging tail. She goes right to work," he added.
Towards the future
All in all, it’s been a great success, according to Hannie. The dog and the cat are even "sleeping right next to each other" now, he said. "The cat’s eating dog food; the dog’s eating cat food. It’s crazy, but everyone is happy," he added.
While no "structured activities" with the pets are actually planned, the future might hold a bit of dog bathing on the part of some residents, said Hannie.
Caring for the animals is the domain of Dr. Phil Deville of Abbeville, "the veterinary of record" according to Hannie. "He has given us his services, his time, and his goods for next to nothing – which is a great positive. Our activities program doesn’t have a lot of money in it," he added.
The staff is working on finding donations of animal feed and litter, Hannie added.
What’s to see at Lahasky
"Where you going with that Chere?" said Edmund Bourgeois, wagging his finger at Hungerford and looking terribly concerned, as she removed the cage holding Leroy and C.B. from the meeting room.
"I’m just going to clean to clean the cage," she gently told the wheel-chair bound resident.
"Well that’s ok, then," said Bourgeois. "But you bring them back, you hear?" he added.
"They are very protective of these animals," Hungerford whispered.
Bourgeois didn’t see the cage returned to its place in the center of the nursing home. He was busy petting Baxter.
"It definitely gives people a little taste of home and what they used to have. It just brings smiles to their faces. That’s what I thought would happen, and I’m glad that’s the way it has worked out," said Hannie. "We are interested in making our residents as happy as possible. That’s our goal."
Bourgeois would probably say that goal had been reached.
But for now he strokes his arthritic hand down Baxter’s sleek back and scratches under his chin whispering "chat, chat chat, joli chat."