And they called it puppy love

My uncle Brian lived quietly after his retirement. He read, he took walks, watched television, spent time with family.

A couple of years ago, Brian started having trouble following conversations. A hearing aid seemed to help. But when he couldn’t find the thermostat in his house, we realized there was more going on than just hearing loss. He was showing signs of dementia.

When the time came, he went into a lovely senior facility built at the edge of a small lake, a place with walking paths and colorful, well-tended gardens where he could sit in the sunshine. Mostly, though, he wanted to keep moving.

He walked and walked. And then he walked some more. His dementia progressed. One day he slipped out of the building unnoticed and couldn’t find his way back in.

Now he lives in a dedicated memory-care community where the only outdoor space is a small, enclosed courtyard. Less freedom, less chance of getting lost.

For a while, he accompanied another resident who walked her dog in the hallway. He announced that he was going to get a dog too, which surprised us, since he’d never wanted one before.

He began to develop the physical problems associated with dementia. His balance was off and he was falling a lot. He fought against using a walker so a wheelchair was brought in. Being pushed around in his chair is a poor substitute for the walking Brian loves.

We tried to interest him in other things. He couldn’t read anymore, and he didn’t seem to care about listening to music or watching television or looking at family photos.

We worried that he was so alone.

Just before Christmas, I read a New York Times article about robotic dogs and cats being used for pet therapy in the memory care wing of a Bronx senior home. These Hasbro “Companion Pets” react to voice and touch.

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I decided to take a chance. Maybe Brian really did want a dog. I bought him a golden, silky-furred robotic puppy and named it Sandy, which I figured could work for either a boy or a girl. I didn’t know which gender he’d prefer.

When we took the dog to Brian in early January, I tried to keep my expectations low. I hoped he would respond and interact, but knew he might pay no attention to it at all.

Success! Brian held the puppy on his lap and stroked its head. Sandy blinked, and made a light panting sound. We showed him how to cup the dog’s cheek to get it to nuzzle his hand, how to stroke the dog’s back to activate a heartbeat sensation. Brian quickly warmed to Sandy. When he tugged on the bandana, the puppy raised its eyebrows and wagged its tail. He blew gently on Sandy’s nose. The dog replied with a few soft barks.

I came back to visit two weeks later. Sandy was sitting on a side table in Brian’s room. The little bandana had come off. The name tag I had made was missing.

The dog goes to sleep when left alone, so I picked him up. (Brian has decided it’s a boy.) Suddenly the room was filled with puppy noises as Sandy looked around at us. Brian perked up a bit.

He called “yoo-hoo” to Sandy; the dog turned toward the sound of his voice. Then Brian said, “I’m going to try an experiment,” and pedaled his wheelchair with his feet on the floor, Fred Flintstone—style, past the dog. Sandy rewarded him with a burst of movement and animated woofing.

I’m pretty sure my uncle doesn’t think Sandy is a real puppy. It doesn’t matter. Even a robotic pet can be a source of joyful companionship. That’s what I want for Brian as he drifts away from us, into a world we cannot know.

Copyright © 2017 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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10 Responses to And they called it puppy love

  1. Ronald Tatro says:

    Paulette, Good morning. I always read your posts and was taken by this one. I was wondering if I could get your permission to share it with our staff. As you may know we work with seniors facing all kinds of challenges and I am always on the lookout for topics of interest for our staff. There has also been some past posts that might be of interest, but I have never gotten around to ask your permission to share. Thank you for considering my request. Ron

    • Yes, absolutely, you have my permission to share any of my posts with your staff. I’m pleased to know that my writing might be useful to those you work with. You can easily find all the posts about dementia by clicking on the word “Dementia” in the “Categories” list that runs along the right side of the blog. There are twelve so far. If you share my writing in a newsletter, please include my full name and copyright as it appears at the end of each post, and also give the blog’s URL: volunteerpianist.wordpress.com
      Thanks so much for your continued interest in my blog!

  2. Sandy Shores says:

    What a great idea! Now I’m wondering if a companion pet would be ideal to keep my cat company when I am away? LOL

  3. Jessa says:

    Glad he’s got some entertainment out of Sandy. Good investment! 🙂

  4. Judie says:

    I am so delighted you found this for Brian. It is so wonderful to see him interact with this pet. But at the same time bitter sweet to see him drifting a little further away from us.

  5. consuelo says:

    loved your story, Paulette. It just goes to show how affectionate interaction is so important to social beings like ourselves.

  6. Kim Hill says:

    Awesome story! I’m so glad your uncle is enjoying his new little furry companion. I had no idea that Hasbro made such a thing – what a great idea! And they partnered with Meals on Wheels last year: http://investor.hasbro.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=981173
    Pets are great therapy for anyone, really: they help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase social interaction and help stave off depression. Putting all those benefits into a robotic companion pet that you don’t have to clean up after? Even better! Thanks for sharing!

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