When I take on a new challenge or responsibility, it’s never without an antecedent. In this case, it was seeing the effect that our little rescue girl Ellie (4-year-old Shih Tzu) has had on my mother over the last several months. This heartwarming connection inspired me to have Ellie certified as a therapy dog, since she has been serving in that role without an official title. This certification was accomplished this past Sunday and I couldn’t be more excited about having her “give back”!
This month (November) is four years since my mom received her diagnosis at Penn. As many of you know, this began an emotional journey for our family, but especially for my dad who is still her primary caregiver. (As I write this, he will be celebrating a birthday this Saturday, 10/24, and we’re only allowed to tell folks that he’s turning 67. He got “stuck” on that age many, many years ago!!!) His sense of humor and strong constitution has certainly served HIM well in his role, but not without a price. Back in May of this year, his immune system collapsed and he was bedridden for several days. But, low and behold, he recovered and he’s back stronger and looking healthier than ever (must have been the steroids!!!)
Caring for my mom has not only gotten tougher physically, but emotionally as well. We try to give my dad little breaks to recharge by taking my mom out for a few hours, but I think what really is a bright spot in their week is Sunday dinner at our home TO VISIT WITH ELLIE…grrrrrr…and my dad makes it very, very clear: I’m not here for the cooking, it’s all about ELLIE!!!
They literally trip over each other (although my poor mom never beats him through the door, of course!) to greet Ellie who is waiting for them patiently in the foyer, tail wagging so vigorously I swear she’s going to shake it free one of these days. Our dining room window is the perfect height for her and once she hears, go wait for grams and pop-pop, her position at the window does not change. She’s on duty!!! She will then jump up to greet my dad (remember, he’s left my mom in the dust to get to Ellie!) She will then jump to the second step in order to greet my mom. We’ve watched her do this week after week and can only assume that she senses that it’s easier for my mom, not to have to bend, since she’s slower and more deliberate in her movements while making her way to greet Ellie.
From there, the engagement with my mom does not stop. While my dad is opening the wine and telling us about their week and cheering for the Eagles, Ellie is “guarding my mom” – whether it’s on the couch (my mom has always been a huge football fan!!!) or if she’s at the kitchen table while I’m preparing dinner – she does not leave her side.
Now, my mom was never as huge a fan of dogs as she is of football, although we’ve always had dogs, it was more so for our benefit. Well, you could never have been able to tell that by her interaction with Ellie. If my mom chooses to sit in my reading chair and prop her feet up, Ellie literally jumps into her lap, giving kisses relentlessly and you’ll hear my mom giggling (music to our ears!!!)
When my dad “announces” that he’s leaving after a day of eating, drinking and lots of football, Ellie is called to duty again. It takes a village to get my mom up out of an easy chair these days – all 90-or-so pounds of her — and Ellie stands guard until this task is accomplished. My dad begins to enter the foyer first while I take my mom by the arm…Ellie not far behind. She looks after her and makes sure that she gets to where she needs to be without incident. She’ll give her goodbye kisses to my dad and then, as you might have guessed, will jump up onto the second step where my mom can bend down gently to pat her head while Ellie is kissing her hands in gratitude. We can “hear” my mom whispering sweet nothings to Ellie…language that flows freely, unlabored, and in an appropriate tone. It’s amazing how this little girl can breathe life into my mom, enabling her to interact in a way that she can no longer do with her husband or family…at least not as effortlessly.
Ellie will continue to be on duty for my mom (and my dad!!!) every Sunday. She is also off to CHOP, The Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia, in a few weeks to bring smiles to the faces of the children there after my vaccinations are completed. We’re off to Pennsylvania Hospital this coming week to meet with a group of patients who suffer with mood disorders. And, of course, nursing homes — especially those with Dementia/Alzheimer’s wings – will be high on our priority list.
In closing, although the struggle with Alzheimer’s is exhausting for caregivers as well as the patient, it’s heartwarming to know that we can still break through to their emotional side…well, if not “we”, our four-legged friends have it down to a science!