Honey the dog brings joy and comfort to residents of this senior living center

by Stacey Burling

Publish Date:

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 12:00 pm EDT


News Organization:

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, PA

Source URL:

One picture stands out on the poster showing the faces and names of “designated care managers” at Sunrise of Wall, an assisted living and memory care facility near Belmar, N.J.

The manager in the bottom right corner has a gentle face, long floppy black ears, and a chest covered with curly white fur. Her name is Honey, and she is the Sunrise dog.

For about a year, the 80-pound, 2-year-old rescue, who looks like she may have some Newfoundland in her, has lived at Sunrise full time. She greets everyone who walks through the front door as well as residents in the lobby. She visits offices and loves to go on tours with prospective residents, much to their delight. Her appreciation for head scratches and belly rubs is boundless. She especially loves to visit residents in the memory unit — or “reminiscence neighborhood” — after a meal. She knows they can be a little messy.

She also calms the agitated and soothes the lonely. Residents in wheelchairs and walkers smile when they see her. “She is such a good dog,” one volunteers. “Oh, I love that dog,” another says.

“The residents are happy when the dog is around,” said Viera Rosa, a medication care manager who often feeds Honey and takes her out when she arrives for work at 6 a.m. Honey helped Rosa recover from the death of her own dog, who had moved here with her family from the Czech Republic.

This is what Sunrise hopes will happen when it encourages managers in its 329 facilities to get a dog or a cat or both. It’s optional, but the vast majority of Sunrise homes have a pet, said Nicole Vasile, senior communications manager.

Many Sunrise pets are rescue animals and quite a few are older themselves. “We definitely have a soft spot for senior animals,” said Heather Easterling, a regional director of memory care and planning.

Usually, a group of employees cares for the pets, sometimes with help from residents. The pets can go wherever they want in a facility except the dining room.

Before coming to Sunrise, Honey was a foster animal at the home of Sunrise at Wall’s executive director, Brian Cook. He had gotten Honey — then named MeeMee — from Amazing Mutts Puppy Rescue in Cream Ridge, N.J. She had been brought north from a shelter near Austin, Texas. She was 30 pounds thinner than she is now and had two puppies. They all had mange. Cook was still raw from a painful experience fostering another dog a few months earlier — the shelter pup died in his arms — but he decided to give this docile dog a try with the hope that she’d be a good fit at Sunrise. (The puppies found other homes.)

MeeMee never quite took to Cook’s household, which includes his other dogs, Harper and Winnie, but when Cook brought her to Sunrise to visit, she opened up and was an immediate hit with its 65 residents. The staff set her up near the concierge desk with a big bed lined with an orange and yellow plaid blanket, red water and food bowls, and lots of toys.

“She likes it here, so I leave her here,” Cook said. “This is her happy place.”

The only problem was her name. Sunrise has a concierge named Mimi. Cook thought having a Mimi and a MeeMee in the same lobby could be confusing. Residents chose the new name. Cook is not sure Honey knows either name, but she comes when people want her.

Honey is not without eccentricities. She doesn’t like hardwood floors, which, fortuitously, keeps her out of the dining room. Outside, she insists on walking in clockwise loops, although, truthfully, she’s not a big fan of being outside. Unless it snows.

She doesn’t like elevators so she runs up the stairs to greet riders when the door opens. And she’s been known to steal food that employees throw in trash cans.

“She is food motivated,” Cook said wryly.

She required very little training. She can get excited but has never jumped on anyone. She rarely barks. She seems to just know who is physically capable of bending to rub her belly and who needs her to rest her head in a lap. “Everything she does is like instinctive, and it’s perfect for here,” Cook said.

Cook is clearly Honey’s favorite person at Sunrise. “That’s her buddy,” said resident Elizabeth Barnicle. “She knows he rescued her.”

But she has plenty of energy for others. Resident Karen Gambert, 83, likes to slip Honey dog biscuits that her daughter brings in. “I like dogs,” she said while smiling at Honey. “Actually, I prefer dogs to people.” That was a sentiment several residents shared.

Cook, who is a little concerned about Honey’s weight gain, reminded Gambert that the dog had reached her biscuit allotment for the day.

At the end of a recent morning, Honey took her greeting skills to the next level: A new resident was moving in.

Debbie Parris and her sister, Laura Whalen, both of Neptune, N.J., were helping their aunt, Kathy Percy, 80, move to Sunrise from a rehabilitation center.

Parris, the first one in, brightened the second she saw Honey. The dog, she said, was one reason they’d chosen Sunrise. Their aunt loves dogs, and this felt like home.

Honey stretched on the floor to her full, formidable length, her stomach ready for a rub. “Look at this,” Parris cooed. “How could you not love this?”

Whalen, who had not yet learned Honey’s gender, was equally entranced. “I see he brings joy to a lot of the patients here,” she said.

Percy looked a little overwhelmed as she was rolled into her new home, but she smiled when Honey sidled up for a scratch.

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