Personal Pets in Long-Term Care
Check out this video from the state of Arkansas about the power of animal companionship and how it can transform lives.
by Laurie Loughlin, CEA
I have been an Eden Alternative volunteer since 1999. Unlike most of you reading this, I am not a long-term care professional. My drive to effect culture change comes from 2 deep wells, the first being an aversion to nursing homes since childhood, when one visit to see my grandmother so disturbed me I did not enter a facility again for almost 30 years. By that time I had formed a chorus at my place of employment and we were asked to do a Christmas concert at a local nursing home. After the holidays, several chorus members approached me and asked that we never perform in a nursing home again, as it had haunted them for weeks.
In the mid-90’s, both my parents entered long-term care. My mother’s Alzheimer’s had progressed and my father suffered a physical collapse from trying to take care of her by himself, despite my repeated attempts to get him to accept help. They had pre-selected a physically beautiful campus, and the staff truly cared about my parents, but still, the place creeped me out. I lived in a different state, and flew in for visits often. Every time I arrived at the entrance to the home, I would think, “I wish somebody else could do this” so I wouldn’t have to go in. But there was nobody else; I was an only child, and I loved my parents, so I pushed that door open and went in time after time. They died 7 months apart, and, after I had recovered, I realized that down the line I would probably have to enter long-term care myself. I could either hide my head in the sand or confront the situation and work to change long-term care before I got there. I chose the latter, networking until I found the Tennessee Eden Alternative Coalition.
One reason I was attracted to the organization and decided to commit my time to it was that the Edenizing homes had animals, which brings me to my second deep well, and the reason for this article. I am a pet owner and an animal rescuer. Shortly after I moved into my previous apartment, a police car and an ambulance pulled up across the street. An elderly woman with no family had been deemed no longer fit to live independently and had barricaded herself in her home with her cat. Eventually, they broke in. She was strapped to a gurney and removed to the ambulance screaming for her cat, who ran out the open door and was never seen again, a horrible turn for both of them. Perhaps the woman would have gone more willingly if she’d been able to keep the only love in her life with her. It’s devastating enough to lose your independence, but to be severed from those you love in addition to that must be unbearable. In her I saw myself. This, and other similarly sad and traumatic events I was exposed to through my animal rescues, grounded me in a firm determination to work toward the day when there would be humane options for pet owners who could no longer take care of themselves or their animals, where they could age in place together. When I joined The Eden Alternative, I would not have imagined that, 15 years later, that is still virtually non-existent.
Having house animals is one of the best things about culture change. They brighten the lives of the residents, providing moments of levity through touch, entertainment and the opportunity to nurture. But they cannot replace the intense personal connection people have formed with their own pets nor ease the pain of having to separate from those pets. I recently reconnected with a former coworker I hadn’t seen in years. She is not yet of retirement age but due to health problems has had to go into assisted living. She told me that the hardest thing was giving up her cats, and that it has taken her 2 years to come to terms with her grief. This suffering is happening to thousands of people. It can be different.
Working in long-term care is a special calling. My college roommate has been an Activities Director her whole professional life. She is always enthusiastically planning music programs and other events she knows her residents will enjoy. I once asked her how she could remain so positive and proactive in the atmosphere in which she works. She looked at me as if it was a no-brainer and replied, “I know I’m helping them.” During my lifetime, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time helping those in need, too, but I could not do what you do. I appreciate how hard your jobs are, and I thank you. I am your future resident. And I am asking you to help me.
I am very proud of my efforts as an Eden Associate in a leadership position in my state, and I love the partners I strive with. While the pace of culture change ebbs and flows, we have all made a palpable difference. In addition to changes in the mindset of some in the long-term care industry, the various levels of government have taken notice and their wheels are starting to turn. Yet, with all the improvements I have contributed to, I am feeling very helpless to effect the one change that means the world to me. I have no immediate family other than my animals. And while I have wonderful relatives, friends, neighbors and colleagues who love and care about me, I am no one’s priority and will very likely not have a personal caregiver if/when I start losing my ability to perform activities of daily living. I am your future resident. I see the loneliness coming, and I want to head it off both for myself and those who are getting there before me. I want to be able to bring my animals with me – not just to an assisted living facility where I can have pets as long as I am able to care for them myself, but to a permanent home where I can age in place with my pets, knowing that we will all be taken care of by nurturing people who respect us and empathize with us – you.
And what about yourselves? The most recent study I am aware of states that 48% of Americans own pets. That means that about half of you have non-human loved ones. In the event you yourselves need long-term care, wouldn’t you like to be able to bring them with you? I am very well aware that there is a journey between proposing an idea and bringing it to fruition. But The Eden Alternative is about the journey. While we still possess the physical and mental capabilities to effect change, let’s make strides toward bringing this about.
I have been actively advocating for personal pets in long-term care for 15 years. Thankfully, there are a few homes, both using The Eden Alternative and other approaches, which have started welcoming Elders with their companion animals. In the next issue of this newsletter there will be an article by Jeff Amonett, the Administrator of a nursing home, detailing how his team has assimilated personal pets into their facility.
I am passionately committed to this course. If you want to move forward but have things holding you back, please contact me and I will do my best to get you the answers, contacts or resources that you need. And, if you are already admitting personal pets, I would love to know that!
Laurie Loughlin is the Board Secretary of the Tennessee Eden Alternative Coalition and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. They say a picture is worth a thousand words.