Emile Monte
Ethel the kitty is a healing part of the memory care unit at Park West. She's a therapy animal that can help trigger memories and bring comfort to patients.

Park West Skilled Nursing Center adopts cats Ethel and Lucy

By Emile Monte

“Kitties! Kitties!” Joan, a resident of Park West Skilled Nursing Center’s Memory Unit, seemed to be channeling her inner little girl as she squealed and shuffled after the two chubby black cats in her wheelchair. Clinical liaison Brooke Nelson picked up and gently set Ethel, the chubbier of the two, in Joan’s lap. Joan’s thin and quivering hands stroked Ethel’s neck and she cooed, “Good kitty.” When Ethel finally jumped down Joan sat back and asked me, “Do you have a cat at home?” Yes, I said. Two, actually. She nodded approvingly. “We all had cats growing up in Ireland.” Brooke gave me a meaningful look. “See,” she said. “This is a memory that’s been unburied.”

I had been asking Brooke what she meant by saying that the cats are there to “heal.” After all, Ethel and Lucy’s new companions are all like Joan: elderly, afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer’s. They are people very near the end of their lives. Theirs is not a question of recovery. As it turns out, this healing concept is intuitive, if not so easily articulable.

It has been long known in the practice of therapy that interaction with animals can stimulate positive feelings that encourage healing. So tried and true are the positive effectives of pets on patients that whole organizations such as Pet Partners [http://www.petpartners.org/] exist to offer Assisted Animal Therapy for a vast range of bereavements. To name a few: abuse, adolescence, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, imprisonment, loss, mental disability, pain, PTSD…even speech impediment. The idea is that an afflicted person is in need of emotional healing just as much as physical healing. The unconditional affection that can exist between an animal and a human companion, and the simple, often physical form of that affection’s expression (petting, purring), is a natural stress-reliever. Less stress, more healing.

While obviously not promising recovery per se, Park West offers a holistic approach to boarding and care of the elderly according to Eden culture, which dedicates a whole chapter of its guidelines to animal companionship. Eden sites research that concludes that the presence of a pet stabilizes blood pressure, eases depression, grief, and loneliness, encourages activity and socialization, and establishes a sense of security. In the world of increasing chaos and isolation for the person afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer’s, the stable presence and affection of an animal can help to not only ease the mental turmoil by standing in as a point of focus, but also help evoke emotions and memories that are otherwise unstimulated and forgotten.

Perhaps the question should be, then, why Ethel and Lucy are Park West’s first animal residents when the facility has been offering five star holistic care for years? Part of the reason is that a therapy animal is not just any animal, particularly for a medical facility. They must be healthy, up-to-date on their vaccinations, clean, calm, sociable, and capable of adapting to changing surroundings. The facility itself must be equipped to provide the animal with stimulation as well as respite, and regular care. “Worlds had to align,” said Brooke, to fulfill those stipulations.

What was once the Sensory Stimulation Room, a small room overlooking the front walk, is being turned over into a Nature Room. Upon its completion the room will boast of not only cats, but also birds, plants, and murals of English gardens on the walls. For now there’s a litter box, a blanket, a few chairs, and a large, empty bird cage.

As for the animals, Park West caught a lucky break at their weekly visit to the West Seattle Senior Center for the usual few rounds of Rainbow Bingo. There was an announcement that Rosehedge Adult Family Home on Capital Hill was closing, and unless someone were willing to adopt them, the Home’s two well-adjusted cats would be given up to a shelter. Brooke immediately stepped in.

Just a week into their resettlement, Ethel and Lucy are already napping at the foot residents’ beds. Residents have taken to heart a new sense of purpose that allows them to take care of someone else for once, be that as simple as playing with the cats or brushing their fur. Craftier residents are being equipped to create cat toys. And as for encouraging a sense of community, Brooke said, “Every time the residents see Ethel and Lucy they end up talking together about them all day.”

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