Dogs bring joy to nursing homes through volunteers

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BOSTON – When Harriet Koch realized her dog Tembi was “pretty terrific,” she decided to introduce her to seniors as a volunteer at Sherrill House, a nursing home on South Huntington Avenue in Jamaica Plain.

For the past five years, Koch, who is 87, has been delighting nursing home residents with Tembi, a lhasa apso small enough to fit on her lap, and gaining new friends along the way. Koch likens her pooch to an infant in explaining the animal’s effect on those she visits.

“Handling a dog is sort of like handling a baby,” Koch explained. “That warm little body is very comforting and pleasant for people, especially for people who are in bed in a hospital setting.”

Harriet Koch and her dog Tembi (Courtesy of Petpals)

Harriet Koch and her dog Tembi (Courtesy of Petpals)

Koch volunteers through PetPals, a unit of FriendshipWorks, that matches volunteers with elderly and disabled adults in the greater Boston area. PetPals recruits, screens, and trains pet-and-handler teams, then pairs them with nursing homes and assisted-living communities.

Koch, who volunteers about once a week, sometimes develops close relationships with residents, only to see them pass away.

“There is something hard about a nursing home, because you get to know people and you get friendly with them and then they die,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of people and they passed and that’s really hard.”

For Dana Owens, a volunteer at the Presentation Rehabilitation & Skilled Care Center in Brighton, the visits provide a way to help her dog, Dakota. The mixed breed Cocker Spaniel-poodle had been severely depressed since the death of a sibling, Owens said.

Dogs, Owens has found, can reach people in ways most other creatures can’t.

Dana Owens with her dog Dakota (Courtesy of PetPals)

Dana Owens with her dog Dakota (Courtesy of PetPals)

“There are a couple folks who don’t even talk, ever,” Owens says. “When a dog comes in, you can just see their face light up. It really means a lot that I can provide them with even a couple minutes of happiness, sort of take their mind off of why they are there.”

Jennifer Mathews, who is new to PetPals, feels that her volunteer work gives her rescue dog Rose exercise and attention while bringing laughter and excitement to the residents at Zelma House in Charlestown. Simultaneously, Mathews has enjoyed listening to the stories told by those who are from the area.

“I’ve been telling them how I lived in Beacon Hill and there’s a few there that had owned property or lived there or grew up in Charlestown,” said Mathews. “So just to hear about these people and their experiences, living in the same part of the city decades before is really nice.”

Johnna Barry recently joined PetPals with Annie, her black pug, and visits seniors at Marion Manor, a nursing home in South Boston. After only a couple of months, she says she sees positive effects.

“They are incredibly grateful to have you as a volunteer and that means a lot,” Barry said.

On the other hand, it is also difficult for her to communicate and make connections with some of the patients, such as those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“My own grandmother had Alzheimer’s,” Barry said. “It’s hard to visit a loved one on a regular basis when they no longer recognize you, so I get that it is really important to spend time with those people.”

Koch says she’s seen enough to know that many more volunteers and their pets would be appreciated by residents in nursing homes around the region.

“Dogs bring something special into people who are sick and in nursing homes,” she says. “I think there couldn’t be too many of them.”