Pets brighten up the lives of Windemere residents

Chico delights Windemere resident Mary Ann Alwardt. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Chico squawks as he’s wrapped in a towel and pulled from his cage. Like many 50-year-olds, he’s a little shy about celebrating a landmark birthday, especially in the presence of 30 or so of his fans. Gathered residents of Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center laugh as the lively parrot expresses his dismay over being taken from the safety of his habitat. Taffy McCarthy, after joking about Chico’s misbehavior, leads the residents in the traditional Happy Birthday song while staff doles out cake and punch.

Chico has been a resident comfort animal at Windemere for about 15 years, donated by Dolly Campbell who ran the thrift shop in Vineyard Haven. Since then, he has been a source of joy and entertainment to the home’s population.

“He doesn’t talk to adults, though,” admits Betsy Burmeister, Director of Recreation Therapy. “He whistles at women and talks to the children who visit. He says, ‘I’m Chico! I’m Chico!’ and ‘I’m goooood’ when they ask how he’s feeling,” she elaborates.

Another non-human celebrant at the party was Cookie Dough, a rabbit owned by Julian Wise. Named for the spots on her fur that are scattered like chocolate chips, Cookie usually visits every Friday and some Mondays. “She seems to be empathic,” says Julian. “When (the residents) need to be soothed, she’s calm. When they need cheering, she’s animated.”

He tells the story (confirmed by Ms. Burmeister) that on one visit to the Memory unit, a 93-year-old patient with dementia was very agitated. He put Cookie Dough in the woman’s lap and she began to pet her. Within minutes, the woman calmed and fell asleep.

The phenomenon is not unusual. According to an article at on-line journal Suite 101, “Researchers have seen that (when) animals interact with people in nursing homes (residents) respond positively to the animals, boosting their moods and improving their interactions with others.”

It continues, “Nursing home residents are more receptive to taking their medication and eating better after having been exposed to the attention and affection of animals.”

Ms. Burmeister explains further. “These people have lost everything,” she says. “They don’t get to see children. They’ve lost their homes, their families…. Many of them have had dogs and cats.” When volunteers bring in comfort animals, the residents get, according to Betsy, “two at once. They get the animal and the owner.”

Besides Chico and Cookie Dough, there are other regular non-human visitors to Windemere – several dogs and a cat. Cody, a golden retriever/poodle mix, arrives daily with owner Dorothy Soquist, who is the center’s social worker. Cody was trained and certified as a therapy dog by the Delta Society (now Pet Partners) in Washington, DC.

River, a short-haired German Shepherd owned by Penny Hinkle, arrives on Wednesdays and Tillo, a long-haired German shepherd, is scheduled for Thursdays and arrives with owner Elaine Shabazian.

Delphi, another short-haired shepherd, comes with Tim Aureden on Tuesdays.

Sketch, the cat, visits on Mondays and Thursdays during the winter, accompanied by owner Belinda Booker. Sketch lays on residents laps while Belinda chats with them.

The animals are the “ice-breakers,” easing conversation between vounteers and residents. Elaine reads to one resident, a poetry lover who is losing her eyesight, while Tillo lies at their feet.

One of the first comfort animals at Windemere was a golden retriever named Sam who arrived with Chris Brooks about 12 years ago. “He made a big impression,” Betsy recalls. She tells of a resident, Mary Fisher, who, at 100 years old was afraid of dogs – until she met Sam. Sam died unexpectedly about three years ago and there’s a stone dedicated to his memory in Windemere’s garden and his picture graces the wall of the Ocean View unit.

The animals are not usually immediately at ease when they first volunteer and it takes a certain temperament to qualify. “It’s about behavior,” Betsy explains. “Although we don’t require certification, the animals must be well-behaved, calm, and quiet.” They also have to have paperwork from their vets verifying that all their shots are up to date and they have to be trained not to eat things that have fallen on the floor. Once they are introduced to the environment, they have to get used to wheelchairs and walkers. And, of course, they have to be clean. Most visits last an hour or so. More than that can be taxing on the animal and resident.

Within an hour, the party wraps up. Cookie Dough is loaded into her carrying-case, Chico is returned to his cage, Taffy packs away her guitar and amp, residents return to their rooms, and staff cleans up. Everyone seems a little calmer and happier.