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.
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.