When people with memory loss go to live in a care facility, they must leave behind many comforts and possessions, including beloved pets.
A project being done for dementia patients in Tiffin is designed to provide substitute pets as a source of sensory stimulation and comfort in their new surroundings.
A company called Memorable Pets makes lap-sized stuffed animals that resemble real dogs and cats.
PHOTO BY MIKE MASELLA
Michela Paradiso (left) listens as Mary Miller holds and talks about her Memorable Pet.
With soft coats and bodies, these toys take the place of live animals. The pets' eyes are fastened securely so they cannot be pulled out, and the toys are washable.
Last fall, Maria Browne, director of community relations at Elmwood at The Shawhan, received a call from her cousin, Michela Paradiso, about sharing Memorable Pets with occupants in Elmwood's Reminiscence Neighborhood.
A senior at Upper Arlington High School, Paradiso is required to complete a project as a graduation requirement. Her class includes about 430 students who have chosen a variety of year-long projects. One student collected school supplies to be shipped to Ethiopia. Another learned to be a disc jockey and organized a dance to raise money for a charity.
Paradiso chose to work with dementia patients and the Alzheimer's Association. Although no one in her family is afflicted with Alzheimer's, a friend of her mother's lost a loved one to the disease.
She also knew Browne worked with patients
suffering from memory loss.
Paradiso discovered the Memorable Pets website, www.memorablepets.com, from which the animals can be ordered.
"You can just buy the pets for a loved one, and there's also Pets to People, which is where you can buy a pet and the company will place it in a family or a nursing home that can use one. They will tell you where it went," Paradiso said.
"These animals are made with love by a woman whose mother had Alzheimer's disease," Browne said. "She recognized the importance of being able to give love and take care of something and the difference it made in her mother. She has started a business that caters to those with memory impairments."
The student has learned about the benefits of animal therapy, including stimulating the senses, reducing anxiety, providing an object for social interaction and serving as a constant element in the lives of uprooted people.
To get started, Browne sent letters to families of the patients to determine what kind of animals they had owned in the past.
Paradiso said the pets were divided about equally between dogs and cats. Then, she tried to match the stuffed animals as closely as possible with the Elmwood residents.
"I sent out a letter that I wrote to all my friends and family, to people I knew ... and I had about 50 pets donated," Paradiso said.
Dec. 23, Paradiso presented the pets to Elmwood residents and spent time with each to discuss the new pet.
Since then, the Elmwood staff has been documenting the behaviors of the residents as they relate to the animals. One man was reported singing to his dog. She has made three or four visits so far and kept in touch with Browne by email.
"Early on, I was really nervous about how the patients would respond. I thought, 'What if they're thinking "Why is this young girl handing me this pet? This is so weird.' But I've had some great reactions from people," Paradiso said. "I've had people tell me 'Thank you, thank you' over and over again throughout the whole day, telling me how much they loved it, so many stories and cuddling with them. All my nerves went away so quickly."
Having witnessed many positive responses, Paradiso also donated 22 pets to residents at St. Francis Home in Tiffin.
Before the project is finished, she said she would like to provide more pets to a nursing facility in Columbus that Alzheimer's Association has suggested. In April, she is to give a presentation that includes a 15-page research paper and a report about what she has observed and learned about Alzheimer's disease.
"Through the research and people I talked to, I think it's one of the worst diseases, because you kind of die twice. When you lose your memory, the family has to go through that, and then again when they do pass away. It's really tough on a family especially," Paradiso said. "Part of the project is to write a research paper, so my paper is about 15 pages on how sensory stimulation, like a stuffed animal, can help Alzheimer's patients' quality of life."
As for the recipients, they will be able to keep their pets for as long as they want them.
Paradiso has been accepted at Ohio State University, where she is to play on the soccer team. She hopes to organize a game there as a benefit for Alzheimer's Association, and she plans to continue volunteering for the agency.
"That's been fun. I love it. ... I definitely want to continue doing whatever I can for Alzheimer's, since I've enjoyed it so much," Paradiso said.