By Kathy A. Megyeri
For five years, Penny, a trained therapy dog owned by Jan Haycraft of Owatonna, Minn., has improved the lives of elders in senior centers throughout southern Minnesota. Penny has been a mood elevator, an entertainer, an aid in physical therapy and most of all, a true friend.
Medical personnel embrace the miraculous role animals play with their residents and attest to the benefit of therapy dogs like Penny. These animals have a particular impact with the disabled and, particularly, dementia patients. Since the dogs can’t talk, it doesn’t matter if the residents have poor language skills. They still have the ability to communicate, so the animals sense their need for affection and their attempts to reach out for comfort and physical contact.
Many studies have proven what all pet lovers already know: animals heal. Maybe they can’t cure cancer or halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but simply petting an animal causes the human body to release endorphins that help combat depression and feelings of hopelessness. Some animals even have been shown to identify tumors, predict seizures and anticipate death.
Penny, a Golden Retriever mix, started making weekly visits to Cedarview Care Center in Owatonna, but she now visits three care centers, three senior living facilities, a home for adults with developmental disabilities, two schools and the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester.
Her presence eases the loneliness as people caress her and whisper private secrets in her ear. She lies next to them in bed, and the warmth of her body is enough to bring them comfort and ease their pain. It’s a good day when Penny comes to visit.
Penny saw my own father regularly until his death. During his three years at the Cedarview Care Center, as he coped with declining health, she greeted him with the love that he so missed after his wife died. Somehow, Penny instinctively knew that Dad was failing during his last weeks of life because she jumped on his bed, lay beside him, and licked his hands.
It was a bond that went beyond my phone calls with Dad as he found solace in the memories of his own childhood Golden Retriever, and he looked so forward to Penny’s warm greeting and affection during her weekly visits.
My father and Penny were featured in the 2011 national Caring Canines Calendar sponsored by the AMDA Foundation.
AMDA Foundation serves as the research arm of AMDA, whose mission it is to “advance excellence and innovation in the long-term care continuum through research and practice.” The annual calendar includes poignant pictures of pets and their adopted elders from senior centers across the nation.
In the calendar picture, with his arm around Penny, my father is singing, “You Are My Sunshine” to her, and he means every word of that song. She patiently listened to every off-key note and sat enthralled at numerous renditions of the same tune.
But then Dad’s health failed and he entered hospice care. Penny and Jan visited regularly, and Penny never failed to hop onto Dad’s bed and cuddle with him while he mumbled memories and garbled greetings into her ear.
And when I couldn’t fly home fast enough to hold Dad’s hand and tell him how much I loved him before he lost consciousness, it was Penny who laid her muzzle on his chest and attentively listened to his halting breaths.
The final photo of the two of them taken by Jan only days before Dad passed away confirms the bond between them. It is visual confirmation of the power and comfort of these dogs. I left part of Dad’s estate to the AMDA Foundation that promotes the value of therapy dogs.
In addition, Jan made for me a visual record of Dad and Penny’s relationship in the form of a picture book written from Penny’s point of view called “Sid and Me,” and it is one of my most treasured possessions.
And now, Penny is creating the same magic with school-aged youth who are also benefitting from all that she offers—unconditional love, total acceptance, and the joys of bonding with a furry friend who attentively listens to every spoken word and loves us all.
Kathy A. Megyeri of Washington D.C., is Sid’s daughter, a friend to Jan and Penny and a fan of therapy dogs.