Cockatiels live on the fifth floor of St. Ann’s Community. An eight-pound Maltese-shih tzu mix named Kelsey visits Mercy Center each day, and a German shepherd named Joshua frequently roams the halls of the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse.
Why are there so many animals at these local residences?
Joseph, Kelsey and the cockatiels provide animal-assisted therapy for the residents of those facilities. Animals have an innate ability to bring joy to many people, explained Esca Encina, community outreach manager for Lollypop Farm, the Humane Society of Greater Rochester, which has brought its Pet Assisted Therapy program to numerous local institutions over the past two decades. Through this program approximately 50 volunteers and their trained pets visit residents of retirement homes, assisted-living centers and agencies serving those with developmental disabilities, as well as college campuses — especially around the time of final exams, Encina said.
“It’s astounding to see the real difference a pet can make in someone’s life,” she said. “In just a few minutes, you can visibly see people opening up, becoming more engaged and connecting with the therapy pets. It’s so rewarding to know these pets are having such a positive impact in our community.”
This positive community impact recently was recognized by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, which provided a $3,500 grant to Lollypop Farm’s pet-therapy program. This grant will allow participating organizations, including the Sisters of St. Joseph, to schedule visits from Lollypop Farm’s trained therapy pets at a reduced cost. Lollypop Farm’s therapy pets and volunteers visit the motherhouse several times a year and the visits can be transformational, said Martha Mortensen-Kolkmann, the motherhouse’s residential enrichment facilitator.
“I have seen nonverbal residents smile and begin speaking in full sentences when a dog or beautiful, soft bunny is near them. The joy that these animals bring cannot be matched,” Mortensen-Kolkmann said.
Pet-assisted therapy also can significantly reduce anxiety, fatigue, depression and pain in people suffering from a variety of health problems, including cancer, chronic heart failure and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to information published by the Mayo Clinic. After visits from the therapy pets, it’s not uncommon for residents suffering from various illnesses to be less focused on their pain than they were before the visits, Mortensen-Kolkmann said.
Similarly, Mark Simpelaar, certified therapeutic recreation specialist at St. Ann’s Community, said he has noticed residents sometimes require smaller doses of pain medication after visits from therapy pets.
One volunteer brings her greyhound to visit with St. Ann’s residence weekly, staff members occasionally bring their dogs to work with them and the pets of residents’ families put on a pet show at St. Ann’s every fall, Simpelaar said. The residents of the fifth floor have even “adopted” the cockatiels, who often visit residents on other floors.
“It will bring up the residents’ moods and … make them feel like it’s a little part of home,” he remarked.
Many people live with — and love — pets all throughout their lives, so they experience a profound feeling of loss when they move to a place that does not accommodate pets, Mortensen-Kolkmann said. Visits from therapy pets help connect residents to their memories of times with pets, and even residents who never owned pets may find joy in the animals’ visits, she said.
“All of the residents are different in how they appreciate them,” Mortensen-Kolkmann said. “Some just love to look at (the pets), or love to ask questions about them. Some just love to sit and pet the animals. … It becomes really therapeutic for them.”
Visits from therapy pets sometimes prompt residents to talk about their past experiences with pets, added Sister of St. Joseph Margaret Mary Ryan, who frequently takes her German Shepherd, Joshua, to visit sisters throughout the motherhouse, including several on their deathbeds. Dogs seem to provide a calming presence for those in the process of dying, and a rejuvenating presence for those who are healthier, she said.
“They brighten up like you wouldn’t believe. It’s almost like turning on a Christmas tree,” she remarked.