Pets provide companionship, relieve stress

June 29, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

Marshmallow, Kaiser, Tweetie, Sydney, Smokey, Jessie and Vernetta - who goes by the nickname Nettie - do not officially count as any of the approximately 135 who live at Homewood at Williamsport's long-term care facility, but for some they are among the most beloved residents.

The seven cats provide noticeable, therapeutic benefits for the residents at Homewood, said Kathy Henson, therapeutic recreation coordinator for the facility.

That, and friendship.

"I feel like there's been some close companionships with the animals," Henson said.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the face of Homewood resident Edith Caldwell lights up when she is asked about her four-legged friends.

Along with the cats who live at Homewood, a dog visits several times a week.

"That dog, you gotta see him, he's just wonderful," Caldwell said, grinning as she recounted how the dog is adept at opening doors if it believes a treat lingers on the other side.


She likes the cats equally.

"That cat'll get on the sink and jump clean on top," she said. "He'll just sit there and look all around."

Although the cats are known to spend time in some residents' rooms, Caldwell's room doesn't seem to be a favored spot. She believes it's because of a lack of plants.

The cats prefer rooms with plants, she said, because they like to eat the foliage.

She said the animals help to reduce stress.

"It just kind of relieves me," she said of spending time with them.

Hoisting Nettie onto her lap, Homewood resident Betty Marie Roberts commented on the cat's girth.

"She's a load," Roberts said. "She goes around and gets all the scraps, that's why she's so big."

Roberts, who also lives at Homewood, said she enjoys the cats. Before moving to Homewood she said she raised six kittens, but had to give them up.

"I cried like a baby," she said of losing her cats.

Now, it's to Homewood's cats that Roberts sometimes turns.

"They keep me company. I get bored or upset, I just talk to the cats," she said.

Better spirits and less depression

Older people who have pets or interact regularly with animals lead healthier lives and have less stress, according to several published studies on the topic.

Mark Martin, a licensed social worker with Meadowbrook in Hagerstown, said older people often are dealing with loneliness, especially those whose spouses have died. As they grow older, into their 80s and 90s, people also might have lost friends and other family members.

"Loneliness becomes a real big issue," Martin said. "Often pets, if they already have one, are the only creature that they have around them."

Martin said he is familiar with and has read studies linking better health with having a pet.

"As I think over the ones I've worked with, those that had pets had better spirits, less depression than those that didn't have pets," Martin said of his clients.

He said he often will suggest someone look into acquiring a pet, since they are not too expensive and the only side effect might be a chewed-up piece of furniture.

"The benefits can last for years," he said.

Martin said he recommends people adopt animals from a shelter instead of buying from a pet store.

Those who take him up on his suggestion to get a pet seem happier, more upbeat and think less of what they have lost in life - including losses of health, freedoms, loved ones and possibly one's home, he said.

Instead, Martin said, people are able to focus on the companionship and unconditional love an animal offers.

'As much like home as possible'

Officials at Homewood decided about four years ago to have a few cats live at the facility; the animals do not belong to any specific residents.

"We have a goal here of trying to have an environment that's as much like home as possible," Henson said.

For some, moving into the facility means leaving their pets behind. The cats, as well as a handful of birds at the facility, help to fill that void and help the residents feel needed and wanted.

"They sit and talk to the birds for hours and hours," Henson said.

Staff members keep the cats away from residents who do not want to interact with them. That is, if the cats don't take care of the situation first.

"If a resident doesn't like cats, the cats know and they don't go in (their rooms)," she said.

Some residents do not relate well to people, but that changes when an animal saunters in. One resident almost never speaks to anyone, but he opened up and started talking when a dog came into the room, Henson said.

"There's something real special that happens in that moment," she said.

Outside of the long-term care facility, residents who live in cottages on Homewood's campus are allowed to have pets. Henson said she enjoys watching residents walk their dogs in the mornings.

Henson takes the cats to a veterinarian and buys their food and litter. The animals have come from the humane society and other places; one showed up one morning and simply refused to leave, despite Henson's attempts, she said.

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