An old woman who was very dear to me used to tell me at the end of every phone conversation, “Hi to Dan, and a hug for my furry friends.” Eleanor was my “Jewish Mom”, a woman I met during my doctoral studies. She lived alone in the apartment across from mine, and as we struck up a friendship that would last until her passing, she fell in love with my dog, Guinness…but then again, everyone fell in love with Guinness. He was just one of those dogs.
I have always loved watching my dogs interact with the elderly. There is something magical about their connection, an awakening of memories and dreams of their youth that sparks a return to a happier time- even if only for a short while. I saw it with Eleanor, normally a very rigid woman, who melted when she saw my dog. And when she came to Birmingham to meet Dan, she fell in love with my big chicken Doberman, Bailey. I used to take Guinness to visit my mom’s friend at the nursing home, and people who normally seemed catatonic would suddenly come to life, slowly reaching down to pet Guinness’ head, their wrinkled faces lighting up with remembrance and joy. Often they would tell me about the dogs that they had had in great detail….and they would always ask me to come again soon- and bring Guinness.
My current dogs have also had opportunities to work their magic with seniors. When my mother came to live in Birmingham, Cooper and Sophie were almost saviors to her. She went through some dark periods in which she would only really open up to the dogs, and seeing the silent communication between them was something that touched me deeply. They prevented her from closing off from the world, and brought her back to laughter. I could always make her smile by bringing the dogs, sharing stories of their antics, or showing her photos. It was the best medicine every single time.
I will always cherish the memories of Sophie’s last visit to see Mom at St. Martin’s in the Pines Rehab. Cooper adored Mom, but she is protective and I didn’t feel comfortable bringing her into the nursing home environment. Sophie is a very gentle soul, and she had been Mom’s dog for four years. When I walked into the facility with Sophie at my side, the same people who never moved or showed signs of life began to smile and point. Some asked to pet her, and I heard more stories about past pets. It made me so happy to help them revisit special memories from their past, to have them engage with the dogs and with me.
When Sophie and I walked into Mom’s room, Mom broke into a huge smile and called Sophie to her. They had their secret conversation, and I watched the weeks of worry and pain melt from my mother in a matter of moments. She proudly told every nurse and aid (and anyone else who would listen) that Sophie had been her dog- wasn’t she beautiful? We took a walk around the facility and grounds, and it ended up being one of the happiest days Mom had at St. Martin’s.
I am grateful for all of the “furry friends” that I have had, and for the opportunities to share them with seniors. It’s always funny how it works; I share my dogs with the old people, and their smiles and memories become the most precious gift to me, something to enjoy over and over again in my heart.