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March 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A senior citizen's best friend A senior citizen's best friend (March 09, 2005)

Furry visitors make their debut at Lytton Gardens

by Molly Tanenbaum

Doris Herdman's eyes lit up when Daisy walked through the door of Lytton Gardens.

As the black Labradoodle bounded to greet residents of the senior care facility on Webster Street, Herdman called to the canine and noted the resemblance between Daisy and her old neighbor's dog.

"You're just like Sappho!" the 82-year-old said.

It's this combination of remembrance and glee that organizers of the new "Furry Friendly Visitors" program at Lytton Gardens hope for. Through the program pet owners, who volunteer their time, bring their animals once a week for a visit with senior citizens who live at the assisted living, independent and nursing home.

"The animals provide comfort for them on a few different levels," said Karen Morrissey, director of volunteers at Lytton Gardens. "It appeals to their senses and makes them feel challenged."

Morrissey pointed out that even brief, weekly visitations make a difference, especially for those with Alzheimer's and dementia. Pet visitations involve multiple senses and interactions other than verbal communication, which many residents of Lytton may find difficult due to a stroke or other medical conditions.

"It has to be through touch, taste, sound, sight and verbal. There have to be levels of communication besides 'Hi Jack, how are you doing today?' because Jack might not be able to tell you," Morrissey said.

The simple sensation of petting an animal repeatedly can be soothing, according to Morrissey. Some residents actively engage with the pets while others just watch; most get something positive out of the visit.

Morrissey explained that the loving and nonjudgmental nature of animals is helpful for those with Alzheimer's.

"A dog won't get annoyed when a person with Alzheimer's repeats the same thing to them eight times. The dog will just be really excited," she said.

Cats, dogs, rabbits and "basically anything that's had a rabies shot," are welcome at Furry Friendly Visitors, Morrissey said. But not every animal is right for the job. Pets should be comfortable around new people, new surroundings, and especially new animals. There is a one-strike rule for furry visitors: "If they pee or poop then they're out," Morrissey said.

The benefits of the new pet program were apparent on Jan. 2. The four furry visitors immediately raised the spirits of many residents upon arriving, sparking memories of their own past pets and experiences with animals, and providing warmth and unconditional love.

The pet visitations prompted Clay Andrews, 86, a sergeant in World War II, to recall his positive experience with mules during the war.

"Mules were the only good things in the war," he said. "If people were more pleasant, like pets, it would be a better world."

Pet owners also appeared proud to watch their animals interact and bring smiles to the faces of Lytton residents. Mary Henry was glad she came from Los Altos with her two daughters and her 5-year-old Bichon Frise, Buddy.

"We didn't realize there's such a need. It's fun, really fun," she said.

Buddy's pleasant temperament was a good fit for Lytton. He spent the afternoon curling up on the beds and laps of residents.

Andrews sat with Buddy calmly resting on his lap.

"Hello sweetie!" Andrews said with delight.

Palo Altans Edie and Bill Dwan were also pleased at how their Whippet, Nimbus, got along with the Lytton residents.

"I hope someone will do this for me someday," Edie remarked. "Pets give unconditional love and they're soft and they're warm and they're someone to hug, which is so important, especially in this stage of life."

On this Sunday, Chihuahua Fiesta made her first public appearance; the puppy just finished receiving all the necessary shots and arrived in a red, monogrammed carry bag.

"She's been a little shy and everyone's been great about respecting her," said owner Kate Singleton of Redwood City. "I think it's good for her, it's good for everyone."

Singleton passed Fiesta to overjoyed Bertyl Berlin, an 89-year-old resident of Lytton. A dog lover and owner of many Miniature Schnauzers before moving into Lytton a year before, Berlin felt honored to receive such lively visitors to her home.

"So cute! So cute! You're just so beautiful!" Berlin said of Fiesta. "If you can't love that, you can't love anything."

The Furry Friendly Visitors program occurs one Sunday a month at 2 p.m. (the next one is on Feb. 13) and every Thursday night from 7-8 p.m at Lytton Gardens, a non-profit independent, assisted living and nursing home at Lytton Avenue and Webster Street in Palo Alto. The next Sunday Furry Friendly Visitors will happen on Feb. 13. For more volunteering information, visit the Lytton Gardens web site,

Editorial Intern Molly Tanenbaum can be reached at

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