February 20th 2008 9:14 am
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Most of us who visit with therapy dogs have special moments tucked away in our pockets. They are the moments that make an unexpected difference to someone, the moments that keep us doing what we do.
One of our moments happened in a group home we visit. The folks there are separated into different areas based on their functioning ability, so they can be matched with similarly functioning peers and staff who provide them with activities suited to their cognitive and physical ability.
On one side of campus there is a large, lively room where the residents are able to make boxes and fill packages for local companies, and they are paid for their work. This is a bright, fun room to visit, where everyone stops what they're doing to visit Lucy, our therapy dog. Lucy is a small and serious Pomeranian/poodle mix, always ready to do her repertoire of tricks in exchange for a treat. The usual "sit, lay down, speak, and sneeze" are what they all wait for, and multiple hands are outreached around me so they can each be next in line to receive a treat to give Lucy in exchange for one of her tricks. There is laughter and vivacious energy in this room, and not a visitor goes unnoticed or unappreciated. On the way out, everyone waves goodbye, and I'm sure Lucy feels like she has just walked on the red carpet.
The other side of campus houses a quieter room. Here reside the more seriously involved residents. Most of these individuals are nonverbal or have only a very few words in their repertoire. Many love to interact in the limited ways their bodies allow when we visit, and they are delighted to have a little dog placed in their lap or on the tray of their wheelchair. Others need some help to move their hands to reach Lucy on their wheelchair tray, because their muscle tone does not allow them to reach out on their own. Smiles pass across their sweet faces when their wrist brushes up against her fur. Some will attempt eye contact, to reach visually what their hand is touching. Lucy has a wag for all, and this is as much a treat for Lucy as it is for those who are being visited by her.
This quiet room is where our special moment occurred. I didn't realize how special it was until I was led out by Sarah, the employee who guides us through the center. Joe (name has been changed) is a tall, quiet elderly man with a regal, squarish face and handsome, light features. He sits stiffly in his wheelchair, eyes closed and mouth gaping, with little to no control over the movement of his limbs. I thought he was asleep. I was wrong.
Sarah guided his hand over to Lucy who sat waiting atop the table that is attached to the front of his wheelchair. Sarah, a sweet-hearted and soft-spoken woman, is always careful to address the person directly. "Joe, Lucy is here to see you. She is such a soft little dog. Here, do you want to touch her? Let me help you." She gently took his stiff muscles, and guided them to Lucy's back. I pushed Lucy a bit closer to him so his hand would reach. His eyes tried to open, and his mouth continued to gape, but from that open mouth spread a huge, wide-open smile and a noise. We stayed there only a minute or two, helping his hand to pet Lucy, while Joe's face continued to light up. It seemed Joe was trying to talk and I wondered what he was thinking.
We visited the other residents, and on our way back to the parking lot, Sarah spoke in wonder to me outside as we walked. "I can't believe what I just saw. Joe has been here for several years. When he first came, he was very high functioning. He started out like any of us, a normally functioning man, but he has a degenerative disease that is much like Lou Gehrig's disease. Over time we have watched him deteriorate, and it has been hard to watch. I haven't seen him smile for at least four months. He used to have dogs, and he loved dogs. He really connected with Lucy when he touched her, and that was huge for him."
My mouth was now the one that was agape, and I walked in awe, silenced by what I just heard. The situation wrapped around my heart, and as Lucy pranced along to the car, ready for the next adventure, I walked in wonder, realizing at once how moments that may seem such a simple thing to the rest of us can be the event of the year for another. Never underestimate the power of a gentle deed.
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