Pat-a-Pet Helps Elders Reclaim Their Past

By Lisa Dresser | Feb 25, 2014
Photo by: Devon Smith Quarry Hill resident Beulah Farrar bonds with Barry, a kitten participating in P.A.W.S.’ Pat-a-Pet outreach program.

“I had a white cat once. Called him Snowball.”

The gray-haired woman, immaculate in flannel skirt and blue cardigan, speaks clearly, yet to no one in particular. And in any other group, watching a black kitten pounce on a toy mouse, her utterance might seem unremarkable. But these folks—10 women and one gentleman—are residents of the Courtyard, a center providing care for those with memory loss at Quarry Hill in Camden. Caregivers here, in partnership with P.A.W.S.’s Pat-a-Pet program, are discovering the extraordinary power of companion animals to engage residents and help them reconnect with long-forgotten memories.

Marty Martens, an honorary member of P.A.W.S.’s Board of Trustees and a shareholder in Quarry Hill’s cottage community, launched the initiative some 28 years ago.

“My daughter-in-law heard about a program like Pat-a-Pet, run by Angel Memorial Animal Hospital in Massachusetts, and suggested that I start one here,” she says. Marty began taking her West Highland terrier to visit her mother and other patients at the Camden Health Care Center (CHCC), a nursing home that once stood on land now occupied by Quarry Hill. Before long, additional volunteers, escorting selected, eminently pat-able dogs and cats from Camden-Rockport Animal Rescue League (recently renamed P.A.W.S. Animal Adoption Center), joined the cause.

For shelter animals, the benefits of Pat-a-Pet are compelling, Marty explains. “It helps pets adjust to different people and different environments. It also helps us learn more about the animals so that ultimately we can find the best possible homes for them.”

But the gains are perhaps even more striking for Pat-a-Pet’s human participants: typically residents of nursing homes and other senior centers who might otherwise have no day-to-day contact with animals.

“Often the elderly have had to give up a beloved cat or dog, and they really miss that companionship,” comments Marty. “One lady at CHCC was so excited about our once-a-week visits, we’d find her waiting for us at the door each time we arrived.”

Andrea Annis, the Quarry Hill staffer who arranged the Courtyard program, concurs, saying simply, “Animals are so popular here.”

But to continue its good work, Pat-a-Pet needs more volunteers who understand the importance of the people–pet bond. Volunteers must have their own cars, be able to transport pets from P.A.W.S. to participating sites in the community, and facilitate the visits. The time commitment can be as little as an hour or two per month.

And the rewards? Judging from recent Pat-a-Pet gatherings at the Courtyard, they include the satisfaction of seeing people who otherwise appear withdrawn blossom in ways that are significant—if at times subtle.

Take the gentleman seated beside the woman in the blue cardigan. Silent through most of the kitten’s visit, he eventually lets his eyes rest on the furry bundle cavorting in the center of the room.

“Aren’t you cunnin’,” he whispers. As if to no one in particular.

If you think you might like to become a Pat-a-Pet volunteer, please contact Joelle Albury, P.A.W.S. volunteer coordinator, at joellea@pawsadoption.org.

This article was written by Devon Smith.  Devon is the marketing associate at Quarry Hill Retirement Community and a volunteer of P.A.W.S. Animal Adoption Center.

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