A Therapy Cat for Visitors As Much As Residents

cat checks out my purse
Roxy gets messages from my cats on my purse!

One little kitty can really brighten your day, and if she happens to show up in a completely unexpected place and time she can seem like a little angel sent just for you.

cat on desk
Roxy rules the desk!

Moving one’s parent into a nursing facility, while it may come as a relief that they will receive the physical and mental care they need, is rarely a positive activity. So many other options for care are available that by the time a person needs to enter skilled nursing they are so incapacitated by acute or chronic illness that recovery is not probable and time is likely limited.

So it was in May 2010 with my mother’s move after a stay in the hospital, after several months of decline into greater dementia and lesser physical ability, and years in personal care.

She entered the facility on a Saturday when a skeleton staff was on hand. A state-owned facility, it was what my mother could afford by that time, and the place was functional more than pretty with cream-colored cinder-block walls and mostly institutional lighting. Ironically enough, it was where my father had also spent his last years two decades before and as I walked the halls once again, visited my mother’s room and found my way to the administrator’s office I marveled at how much I had, sadly, learned in those 20 years about the end of a person’s life.

But my mother was at least aware enough to remember the same things and a few days before, to my surprise, actually asked me if this was where she was moving and began recalling her visits to my father, her husband, and that time of her life. I knew she would have excellent care no matter the time or day, and this evening I would only sign the most essential forms that evening and return on a weekday to finish.

cat on cat tree
Roxy's ready for sleep

But what a surprise and joy when I entered the administrative office to sign those forms to see a very alert kitty on a nice cat tree in the corner of the darkened office!

Much has been written about the benefits of animals to persons in care facilities, even persons in deep dementia. An animal’s non-verbal and naturally friendly nature is not threatening as the rest of the world must seem to a person who has lost control of some of their mental and/or physical capacity. Just the touch of fur or a purr or lick can make a connection no human touch could engender.

Well, I can attest that these animals are just as welcoming to those of us who are committing our loved ones into this type of care. Seeing the familiar shape of a kitty and spending even just giving her a quick pet in the office while I was signing my mother into a nursing home, likely her last living place, released my anxiety about the day, the move and the future.

I signed the forms and went over to pet the cat who was leaning a little toward me with a skeptical look, and in the dark at that end of the office I saw another bed on the floor, food and water bowls and lots of toys. This was one well-settled kitty!

“Does she live here?” I asked the nurse who was organizing my papers. “Is she a therapy cat?”

“Yes, she lives in the office here,” the nurse told me. “She doesn’t come out too much during the day but the residents who like cats can visit her.”

Well, I thought, I’ll have to look into this a little further as I visit my mother.

My mother had been in personal care since 2002. She had had lung cancer surgery in 2001 and because of her underlying heart disease barely survived, recovering slowly and remaining weak and subject to bouts of dementia and pneumonia. Living in personal care actually improved her health because she was not only well cared for but living communally she was more vibrant and social than she had been in years.

close up of cat's face
A little blurry but the best I could get for her eye color.

2010 had been difficult, though, as she made one final slip into dementia the previous summer and really didn’t emerge, beginning to lose weight and physical ability at the same time, falling more frequently and with more trouble swallowing which meant extreme care in feeding her as she was often too confused or physically incapable of feeding herself. She usually recognized me, but at the same time everyone she had ever known was also currently alive and recognizable as well, maybe even in the room with us, and she would argue the point if I questioned her.

I could no longer easily take her out to shop or for a quick meal as even her diet changed, and visits often consisted of following her as she marched up and down the hallway pushing her walker. Then walking became difficult if not dangerous, and even confused conversation was rare. I know she was still aware of me when I visited, but she openly responded less often.

So how nice to know there was a friendly kitty handy in the building for when I needed to restore myself, and during evening visits I could wander down to the administration wing where Roxy was queen of the hallways. My mother was not so restored by animals and I think fur felt unexpected and therefore a little frightening under her hand, so I visited Roxy by myself.

Roxy was just about six years old, and was brought in as a therapy cat at just about six weeks old.

“Our Director of Nursing found her mother, Chloe, in a dumpster,” said Sue Haver of the business office and a 34-year employee of Kane Regional Center in Scott Township, who was Roxy’s primary caregiver at the facility. “We decided to give it a try with a therapy animal and she’s been here since she was just a tiny kitten.”

No wonder Roxy seemed so comfortable with her position in the office. She’d been there virtually all her life. Still, it takes a special personality to live in a care facility with what can sometimes seem like total mayhem all around—conversations and phones ringing, humans with varying degrees of speaking ability at a sometimes startling volume, various assist devices from motorized wheelchairs to portable oxygen tanks.

cat playing on floor
Roxy shows off on the floor.

Kane Regional Center is run by the county and isn’t a posh, over decorated retirement center, but even with the tile floors and cinder-block walls I have never seen more competent and compassionate staff and a bright and positive atmosphere. My father was resident there 20 years ago, and I know many others whose family members lived there. Some of the residents are not in end-of-life care but have truly profound physical disabilities requiring constant care, and the generosity of the staff to adopt a kitten who needed a home and take the time to raise her and treat her like a member of the family is testament to their open-hearted nature.

Roxy returned the favor. She had the aforementioned toys all over the office, but she also liked to chase gum wrappers and would sometimes play fetch, bringing them back “very slowly, but she brings them back,” Sue remarked.

Like most cats, she was the queen of every comfortable spot in the office. “If she’s on a chair and someone wants to sit there, they’ll go get another chair rather than move Roxy,” Sue laughed.

“She’s a really sweet cat,” Sue said. “She’s really quiet and affectionate, and she really doesn’t wander too far from the office.”

Residents who like cats are welcome to stop by to see her, though.

Roxy was given the run of the place at night and the door to the office was left ajar. “She wanders all around, but she often ends up in the chapel,” Sue said. “During the day she most often only goes to the end of the hallway.”

And she knows who to call for help.

cat wearing costume
Roxy models her Steelers hoodie with denim skirt

“If she gets locked out of her office, if the door shuts accidentally, she goes to the end of the hallway and meows in the direction of Security,” Sue explained. “If they don’t hear her, she goes to their office to let them know.”

Roxy at first appeared to be a black cat, but on closer inspection turned out to be a smoke tabby, very dark gray with black stripes, and a tiny white spot on her chest. Her eyes are a lovely aqua, just as much blue as green, that I haven’t seen in too many cats.

clothing on hooks
Roxy's costumes along with a few nurse's smocks.

And she’s probably the only office cat with her own wardrobe of costumes. Here in Steelers Country, any black animal can quickly become a Steelers fan with the addition of a gold garment. “We like to dress her up for Halloween, and other times too,” Sue tells me as she slips a gold hoodie sweatshirt with a denim skirt attached over Roxy’s back and snaps it beneath her belly.

I looked forward to visiting Roxy when I stopped in to see my mother, and Roxy inherited a few of the toys my kids had doubles of along with some treats. I took my mother to see her one evening, and between my mother’s poor vision and dementia I’m not sure she really grasped the experience. At that time my mother was insisting that Bootsie, the cat I was given for Christmas when I was nine, was still around, so perhaps she thought Roxy was Bootsie and paid little attention to her.

cat's tail on cat tree
Roxy snuggles in on her cat tree.

And because so many people who move into care facilities have to give up their pets, I’m always glad to know that there’s a kitty for the residents here to visit and pet and play with.

Good job, Roxy!

I originally wrote this article in May 2010. During the nine months my mother was resident at Kane, I found the chance to visit Roxy a number of times in the evening, stopping by the quiet administration wing on my way out the door to relax and pet a cat after an often troubling visit with my mother. My mother died in January 2011, but I always remember the comfort of a cat in that situation—so many new people and procedures to get to know, but an animal is a friend right away.

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Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, The Creative Cat offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats. From catchy and creative headlines to factual articles and fictional stories, The Creative Cat provides constant entertainment and important information to people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

7 thoughts on “A Therapy Cat for Visitors As Much As Residents

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  • May 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm
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    what a great idea for a nursing care facility. Cats are so warming to so many people, both those who live there and those who come to visit their loved ones. Cat make it so much more comfortable.

    Reply
    • May 23, 2012 at 7:05 pm
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      Savannah, they really do, being small and quiet, they can sit on a lap, and Roxy made my visits much nicer! I also enjoyed sharing my cats with the ladies at the first place my mother lived.

      Reply
  • May 23, 2012 at 9:30 am
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    What a wonderful piece, Bernadette. I have both seen and heard of people in senior-care facilities who were pretty deeply sunk into dementia but who lit up like Christmas trees at the sight of an animal. I remember seeing one such woman on Pet Day at the local convalescent home exclaiming excitedly to a small dog, “You look at me! You look at me!” Just engaging with that animal for a few moments made her feel less invisible, less lost. How lucky the folks in your mom’s facility had Roxie.

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    • May 23, 2012 at 7:10 pm
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      Tammy, animals should always be involved in caregiving. I remember when I took my cats to the other place my mother lived, the ladies even just like to look at whichever cat it was, and to be chosen as the lap for the kitty, now that was something!

      Reply

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