My little dog and I recently started a new volunteer gig at a nursing home. It is not our first Therapy Dog job, nor are we the only Therapy Dog team working at this facility. I am pretty pleased with the results thus far though.
We started out October 19th. I resisted the urge to have her wear her little black bandana with the Candy Corn pattern in the material. She got it on one of her visits to the Hound Dog Pet Hotel. I debated with myself whether it was too early, or perfect, to flash a bit of Halloween energy. I decided I couldn’t do that to her, or me, on our very first visit. Funny thing, someone asked me that day if I “dress her up” often.
“She wears sweaters when it is cold.”
The beauty of working with Sofia at my side is that she takes on the majority of the attention. She shines even more than I do. People have plenty of questions for or about her.
I was super anxious that first day. The Volunteer Coordinator was absolutely lovely to talk with on the phone. I went as mentally prepared as possible for that chance that she was one of those people. One of those people who see me and have an immediate negative reaction. I was anxious that the residents would have difficulty processing me.
It turned out that the Volunteer Coordinator is as wonderful and genuine in person as she was on the phone. She was super sweet to both me and Sofia. It is apparent that she loves dogs. She is great with the residents. Consistently respectful.
We were scheduled for ten in the morning, which turned out to be not the best timing. They have breakfast, or brunch, or some meal at that time. We managed to make it to each of the three floors and be seen by the majority of folks. Most of the residents, from my observations thus far, are in wheelchairs. Sofia is too short for them to pet her when she is on the ground. When the Volunteer Coordinator directed us to a specific person, I would kneel down in front of them and prop Sofia up on one of my knees. Smiles. They all smiled. Most reached out to pet her. Some giggled and encouraged her to lick their fingers. Some immediately started talking about their dog from whatever time frame in their life. Each and every one of them “lit up” though. I don’t remember having such a vivid example of this phrase before. I didn’t know any of these people, but, their reactions to seeing Sofia were more than obvious and always good.
It was all sort of a whirlwind. Our hour time frame was up. It felt like we saw 100 people. I left there feeling good about the energy of the space in general, as well as the residents. I am grateful that the Volunteer Coordinator stays with us and steers us away from the handful of residents that do not like dogs (translation – are afraid of them, perhaps previously traumatized by). I was happy to realize that not many people looked at me, hardly at all. They were keenly focused on Sofia – straining their eyesight and hearing, trying to soak up as much of her as possible.
Our second visit was on November 2nd. I have intentionally wanted to work with Sofia on Wednesday morning, so the actual date is a coincidence. I was pleased with it though. November 2nd is the death anniversary of my sweet cat Bubba, who died in 2009. I figured Bubba would be proud of me – taking special care of Sofia and doing some volunteer work, spreading the love…
We were less anxious. We were more excited. We were again arriving just in time for their meal. It was again a bit of a whirlwind. Some of the faces looked familiar to me. I was still disoriented as to where we were and grateful that the Volunteer Coordinator was with us the entire time. Again, the reactions to Sofia were precious. I watched one woman, sitting at a table, seemingly in some sort of “catatonic” state. She was not paying attention, if you will, to anyone else at the table. She didn’t seem to notice anything. It would have been easy enough to assume she could not see or hear. That whole hour was again so many folks that I don’t remember enough details. I do remember this woman reaching out for Sofia. I do remember this woman smiling.
It wasn’t until we walked away from that area that it started to hit me how serious Sofia’s impact could be. The Volunteer Coordinator said something to me about how amazing that reaction from that woman was. She proceeded to mention that particular interaction, incredulously, to her co-workers as we moved on to other areas, each expressing some level of impression hearing that report. She told me later that week on the phone that she had worked there for seven years and never seen a reaction like that out of that particular resident.
Again, it was all fun enough, but somewhat overwhelming with so many people in such a short amount of time. And I can’t say that they all look alike of course. Although, they are almost all white, they are all fairly old, they are mostly women, and they all have a familiar feeling to me. When I did my initial phone interview, the Volunteer Coordinator at one point said that it is “sort of like visiting your grandparents.” She is right. None of these people really, truly “look like” any of my grandparents. However, they all have a sense of familiarity about them.
I couldn’t tell you one of their names. Overwhelming. Good, but overwhelming. I wish I could remember which one looked up at me and said “You know what dog spelled backwards is, don’t ya?” winking at me as she said it. I wish I would have counted how many times I heard “She’s soft as silk.” I couldn’t tell you one of their names. And their faces were mostly a blur.
Today was our third visit. It was wonderful. I sucked it up, and agreed to go at nine in the morning rather than ten. Makes a big difference in a nursing home. The Volunteer Coordinator was with us the whole time again. We didn’t even leave the first floor; previously, we hit all three floors. She walked around with us, helping us decide whose room we could visit or what activities we could bare witness to and join the energy of. I had thought ahead, thank goodness, of bringing one of Sofia’s blankets along – knowing we might go into rooms this visit. I was glad I did. The first room we went to there was a woman who loves dogs and was thrilled when we walked into the room. She was confined to her bed, on her back, so she could not see Sofia or pet her. She wanted to though. I got permission and then put the blanket on this woman’s belly, basically, and then Sofia onto the blanket. I periodically asked if Sofia’s weight (all 13.2 pounds of her) was too much or if she was OK with Sofia still. The grin from ear-to-ear and the stories about her own dogs were pretty good evidence that this woman was just fine with Sofia sitting on top of her.
Another woman was sitting up in a chair, reading the newspaper when we walked in. She wanted Sofia on her lap. This woman reminded me most of my grandma Winnie by the way. Similar hairdo. Higher pitched voice. It was just a fleeting reminder. And then I focused on paying attention to Sofia and this woman and facilitating their interaction. Precious.
We joined a group sitting in an open area that were all “parked” in their wheelchairs (except two, I think, who had arrived with the assistance of walkers and were sitting on regular chairs) facing another staff member who was reading the newspaper to them. Cute. Sofia had excellent interactions with four or five of those folks, and got random smiles from the others.
We moved on to an area where some of them were gathering for their next meal. The Volunteer Coordinator directed me to a woman sitting at the table already. She smiled and was pleasant and happy, but I could tell she was hesitant to take her eyes off of Sofia in a different way than most. She was nervous. She could not stop talking about how pretty Sofia was though. I pulled up a chair and sat Sofia on the chair next to this woman. Eventually, she reached out one of her hands and touched Sofia’s fur. She smiled bigger.
“Will she bite me?”
“Well, any dog could bite, but I am watching her. That is my job, to pay attention to her and make sure she is OK. She likes you. Her ears are up. She has a little smile on her face.”
I think she appreciated my blatant honesty. Seriously, though, any dog could bite. And I have seen Sofia have negative reactions to some people, although not while officially on-duty and always when caught off-guard.
It was super fun then to watch this woman continue to gently pet Sofia and see her anxiety melt away. Soon, she was trying to get the attention of anyone coming by us – pointing to Sofia. “I don’t even like dogs. I like this dog. I’d keep this dog.” Pretty fun.
I’m pretty grateful for Sofia. She brings consistent joy and love into my own life. I’m real grateful that she is willing to help me spread that love and joy elsewhere too.
Now, if I could just get her a paying gig. Just kidding. Mostly. I’m not too proud to accept donations to help support our work. Dog food isn’t free, ya know.