Life Lessons From My Therapy Dog: The Alzheimer’s Unit

We brought Henri home when she was just 7-weeks old. Her big hazel eyes and forever-wagging tail stopped strangers on the street everywhere we went. Very quickly, I realized I had a pretty special little ball of fluff who could instantly brighten somebody’s day.

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You know those little deals you try to make with God, usually in moments of complete desperation?

God, if you let me live through the night I’ll never drink again. God, if you help me pass this exam, I promise I’ll stop cursing. 

Henri came with one of those desperate pleas and deal proposals on my end. In the first week that we had her, a “trial week” for my allergies, I silently prayed, “God, if you make me not allergic to her, I’ll make sure she helps people. I’ll use her life to make other people happy, to bring comfort to those who are suffering.”

It was a terrifying first week. Isaac and I didn’t want to fall in love with her in case we had to give her back. We didn’t want to become attached. But we both fell hard by the end of the week– just in time to realize I was not allergic to her.

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I was serious about my “deal” with God. Unlike the pleas of a hungover college freshman or a nervous exam-taker, I had no intention of letting go of my end of the bargain– using Henri to bring happiness to others.

A year and a half of training, lots of patience and late nights, and hundreds of dollars later– we had our very own therapy dog. She was now certified to go into hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and anywhere else that allowed therapy animal work.

IMG_1950Our first therapy visit was wonderful. We spent an hour at a local Alzheimer’s care facility, and the residents and Henri seemed to really enjoy each other’s company. I came home beaming proud of my little superstar and couldn’t wait to go back. And we did go back every week for several months. Soon it became more than just a therapy visit for Henri. I became more than just a “dog handler” to the residents, and their stories, experiences, and histories became important and meaningful to me.

I began learning all of the residents names, and many of them remembered us each week. Of course, many of them did not remember us at all. Week after week, I introduced myself and Henri to them as if for the very first time. I showed them all of Henri’s tricks…again. They squealed with delight, having no idea that they had been seeing the same exact tricks for the past six months. I smiled, trying to ignore the dull ache in my heart that had started to accompany our weekly visits.

One woman in particular, Cheryl, grew quite attached to Henri. She showed her off around the nursing home and introduced her to everyone as “her best friend.” When Henri licked the hands of other residents, Cheryl would proclaim, “she is saying hi to you because she’s a nice dog, but she really loves me the most.” I grinned and winked at Cheryl, a quiet confirmation that she was spot on.

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Henri laid on Cheryl’s feet while we read books, shared memories, and made simple, no-bake desserts together. Cheryl would routinely slip Henri crumbs and treats under the table while flashing me the same impish smile a 6-year old gives her mom when caught feeding the family dog at the dinner table.

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Eventually, the dull ache I felt in my heart at the Alzheimer’s facility turned into something I was no longer able to ignore.

One Saturday afternoon, I was sitting on the floral, plastic-covered sofa in the nursing home lobby with a small group of residents. Henri was entertaining them with her antics as usual, and an elderly couple taking a slow walk through the hallways caught my eye. The man, in his late 70’s, was wearing suspenders and a farmer’s hat–he was the epitome of adorable. In his arm he supported his wife, a longtime resident of the Alzheimer’s care facility. I watched them walk impossibly slow down the dim corridor, and couldn’t help but smile at the sweet scene. Now that is love, I thought to myself

The couple stopped a few feet from where Henri and I were visiting with the residents, the husband was oblivious to anyone other than his frail wife in his arms. Taking a break from walking, he gently grabbed her face in his hands and kissed her pale forehead. With a trembling voice he said, “I love you so much, okay? I love you. Do you know that? Do you remember that? I love you so much, my sweetie.” He was strangely stern as he spoke these sweet words, as if he could force them into her head and make her remember. Now fully invested in the love story unfolding before my eyes, I watched and hoped with every ounce of my being that she would look up at him and say back, “I know, and I love you too.”

But when you have late-stage Alzheimer’s Disease, you don’t say it back. You are scared, confused, and upset. You know you should recognize the man kissing your head and professing his love, but you don’t. You stare at him with wild eyes, signaling to the strange man that you don’t know who he is anymore.

The defeat on the man’s face and the heartbreak in his voice was sobering. I no longer wanted to be privy to this– it was without a doubt the saddest love story I had ever witnessed. I felt like I had been catapulted into the middle of a Nicholas Sparks movie. Was this real life? I bit my lip, praying to hold it together until I could leave the room. Excusing myself from the circle of residents, I bolted into the closest activity room and sobbed quietly in the corner. Henri, always a therapy dog for others, suddenly became my therapy dog as I wept.

I had never been exposed to Alzheimer’s Disease this way before. I cried for this sweet couple, I cried for all of the residents in the nursing home who I finally allowed myself to emotionally let in. They were not just people– they were husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, siblings, and parents. I cried for my own husband who lost his grandparents to Alzheimer’s Disease. I finally felt I could understand a tiny, miniscule part of what it meant to lose a loved one before they were really gone. And the hurt and sadness I was feeling in that empty activity room was nothing compared to what is felt by those closest to victims of Alzheimer’s Disease.

As Henri frantically nuzzled my hands and lunged to lick the fresh tears on my cheeks, I wondered if I was strong enough to be here. Strong enough to be the handler for a therapy dog who was so good at her job, but had such a weak, sensitive owner. How naive of me to think I could offer comfort, companionship, and friendship to those we meet on therapy visits, and not get emotionally involved.

to be continued…

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3 thoughts on “Life Lessons From My Therapy Dog: The Alzheimer’s Unit

  1. I cried with you as I read your post. I took care of my Dad full time for 8 years and my mentally disabled brother. (4 of his 5 sisters have the same disease and I have 2 cousins my age with it.) I can tell you I experience more sweet memories and quite a few laughs than I did tears. I know it’s hard to watch, but in the end the pleasure that both you and Henri will give to soooo many others will outweigh your understandably sad moments. Thank you for the giving of your time, energy and empathy.

  2. After a 2 week hiatus I will be resuming my weekly 300 mile round trip to visit my mom who is a resident of a memory unit in Western Mass. I dread these trips more for the time spent on the road and needing to juggle my home and work life than for the time I spend with my confused and increasingly frail 84 year old mom. Dad died in January and my brother lives in California. Luckily her older sister and a few of my cousins still live in the area. But it’s frustrating and heart breaking every Wednesday. It’s insidious. And those of us with parents who’ve been diagnosed wonder when it will be our turn.

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