Furry friends provide comfort to those in assisted and independent living homes

by Ruth Baum Bigus

Publish Date:

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 7:00 am EST

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News Organization:

The Kansas City Star, Kansas City, MO

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For 87-year-old Richard Weigand, 2019 was a stressful year of transition as he moved with his wife to assisted living at the Benton House senior living community in Olathe.

Recently, Weigand’s wife, Mary Lee, moved into memory care; another difficult change.

These transitions have been easier thanks to Toby, the Weigands’ beloved shih tzu, who made the move with the couple, thanks to the facility’s pet-friendly policy.

“In searching for a facility, for them it was a must,” said the Weigands’ daughter, Sally Bodenmiller. “It is so calming for him. He now takes Toby over to see my mom and she loves it.”

Understanding the positive impact pets have, a number of Johnson County senior living communities offer residents the ability to bring their dog, cat or even bird to the homes. Many also provide regular animal visits as part of their programming.

Research increasingly indicates the positive effects of the pet connection. Studies show it can reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure and increase physical activity. These qualities also help slow the overall aging process. And human-pet contact provides companionship and an emotional link for those who may be losing connection due to cognitive decline.

Chelsea Brittain is executive director at Benton House, which opened in April 2019. Benton House allows residents in assisted living to have one dog or cat. Pet therapy brings in dogs occasionally to visit with residents.

“It’s so helpful to have a pet here,” Brittain said. “It provides an immense amount of comfort and it makes it homier.”

For Richard Weigand, Toby is a difference-maker.

“Having Toby with him changes his outlook on everything,” said his daughter. “Since my mom can’t be there with him now, it is comforting to him. If you asked my dad about his dog, he would say, ‘It is my best friend.’”

THEIR ‘FUR BABIES’

Officials at Brookdale of Overland Park-119, an independent living community, say about 50% of their residents have dogs or cats.

“One of my favorite things our residents have created is Barkdale, a fenced-in area for a dog park,” said Executive Director Jessica Arenholz. Pets are not allowed in the common areas of the facility as a courtesy to those who have allergies or don’t like animals.

Brookdale Senior Advocate Brittany Brooks said moving to the facility is often easier for the residents who own pets.

“We have some residents that don’t have family members or children here, so they are like their fur babies. It’s part of their lifestyle,” Brooks said. “Recently we had a resident who was never allowed to have a pet in her apartment and one of her main goals was to move into a community where she could have a pet. She just moved in and she’s already in the process of getting a pet.”

Village Shalom, located at West 123rd Street and Nall Avenue, is undergoing a major expansion and pets have been part of the campus plan, with more greenspace available for walking them. Marketing Director Jill Allin said residents in the villas, as well as those in independent and assisted living, can own pets. Even residents who don’t own a pet benefit.

“It’s amazing the smiles you see walking down the hall,” Allin said. “Just last week I saw couple walking their dogs and both residents and staff stopped to pet the dogs. They are very popular, and it generates a lot of conversation and brings back nice memories for them.”

THE SOCIALIZATION FACTOR

When Pat and Chuck Warner decided to move out of their single-family house into a senior independent living community, it was “a must” that their new home allow their beloved to Wheaten Terrier, Kaylee, to come along. The couple chose Tallgrass Creek at West 138th Street and Metcalf, which welcomed Kaylee.

“She’s the reason why we’re here,” Pat Warner said. “They have a dog park to accommodate her need for exercise and socialization. We have a group of five people with seven dogs, and we have become friends because of the dog park.”

Kaylee has helped the Warners transition to this new stage of their lives.

“She gets us out the door and gives us the exercise we need as well,” Pat Warner said. How has Kaylee adapted to her slightly smaller digs?

“She adjusted beautifully,” Pat Warner said. “She likes to be out on our patio with the lawn area and she can be out there with a tether. And she love to watch the people.”

THE RESIDENT CATS AND DOGS

Several senior living communities also incorporate a resident dog or cat. That’s the way of life at Sunrise of Leawood, where 7-year-old Duke, a chocolate Labrador retriever, and cats Tiger Lily and Adair, walk the halls. All three animals were rescues.

Duke lives between the two floors of the assisted living community at West 116th Street and Granada; he even has his own dog door to go in and out to take care of business.

“Often Duke is the first to greet people and it is such a positive experience,” said Executive Director Ryan Wright. “The pet’s instant ability to brighten someone’s day — be it a resident, team member, staff or visitors — really helps with the overall atmosphere.”

The cats live on the memory care floor and can often be found watching a game of bingo or sitting on a resident’s lap.

“When our residents are having have a tough a day, that’s when we use the pets to help bring them a calming effect when they are overstimulated,” Wright said. “The sensory part is useful.”

Sunrise of Leawood Assisted Living Resident Roger Briscoe has his own cat, Tom, who lives with him, but he appreciates the resident animals, too.

“Duke makes Sunrise feel just like my home,” Briscoe said.

Community pets are also part of the Sunrise system. At Sunrise of Overland Park on West 135th Street, Willie the dog and Ariel the cat are at home. Both are rescues and Willie served as a therapy dog before moving into Sunrise in 2018.

“Pets are such an important part of our communities and our programming for residents, said Executive Director Amy Wright. “Animals promote social interaction with neighbors, family members and caregivers by helping seniors feel more comfortable leaving their rooms or homes.”

Wright said interactions with community pets are carefully managed by team members.

Cisco the cat rules the roost over at Morningside Place, a memory care community on West 81st Street.

“We went out to buy him when one of our residents asked for a cat, and he is the most amazing cat,” said Chasity Robinson Mwangi, community relations director. “When the resident died, the cat struggled for a few days but took over at the community. He knows to go through the reception desk and let himself out.”

Morningside Place allows residents to have a small dog or cat under certain circumstances. However, Cisco is the favored animal.

“Several residents think Cisco is theirs and they call him by different names and ask where he is,” Mwangi said. “One of our residents, who thinks the cat belongs to her, actually keeps water and food for Cisco in her suite.”

Whether it’s Cisco or other animals, Mwangi said these furry friends are important to its residents.

“When you see their faces, it’s sheer pleasure,” she said. “That emotional connection is astonishing.”

HOME-LIKE ENVIRONMENT

Creating a home-like environment is essential at Bickford at Mission Springs, an assisted living and memory care community. Residents may have their own dog or cat as long as they can care for the animal.

“We want to continue that loving relationship for as long as possible. The companionship is extremely important to them,” said Director Samantha Swan. “We have a few dogs and cats and sometimes they become part of the larger family.”

Bickford does have some finches in a cage that are part of the community.

“They’re very calming,” Swan said. “We also work with a company that brings in pets for therapeutic visits. They have brought in everything from rabbits to dogs, and the residents enjoy it.”

Swan, a dog owner herself, is a firm believer in the value of having pets as part of senior living communities, especially as residents move along the aging spectrum.

“Transitioning to assisted living with a pet makes it so much easier,” she said. “You have given up so much that it helps with that transition.

“They provide that companionship and love.”

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