The Palms of Ponte Vedra’s memory care unit was alight with smiles Nov. 22 as Latte padded gently into the commons room. The light brown “chi-weenie” sat patiently before the unit’s residents, a heart-shaped therapy dog tag dangling from her collar and tail wagging beneath her polka-dot tutu.
Owner Michele Leahy beckoned her closer, inviting the 9-year-old dog to crawl lightly into the laps of the residents she’s been visiting as part of The Palm’s pet therapy program since January.
“The residents love having her around,” Leahy said. “You can just see the ways that having her around just brightens their mood, instantly.”
There’s credence to her observation. The Palms has adopted a measure that several care facilities have taken in recent years with the advent of pet therapy, a form of therapy used on everyone from retired Navy men and women to hospital patients, elders and exam-ridden college students. Even facilities such as Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville and St. Augustine’s Haven Hospice have undertaken their own pet therapy programs in the spirit of promoting positivity, healing and wellness.
Memory Care Assistant Activity Director Janice Reaves said that pet therapy is statistically proven to reduce stress and anxiety levels, and that having furry friends around encourages residents to vocalize their thoughts and discuss happenings in their own lives.
“There’s so many ways that I can see that having therapy dogs here has helped the residents,” Reaves said. “It encourages the residents’ vocabulary because they love to speak to her and talk about their visits with her and she has a very calming presence.”
Reaves also said that Latte plays a big role in aiding the residents’ memory retention, as many of them owned dogs in the past but don’t ordinarily see them anymore.
“Through these visits, the residents are able to remember their own memories with their dogs,” she said. “And they’re a reminder to them that animals can and have brought them love and happiness in the past.”
Latte is one of more than 100 pet therapy dogs registered by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) in North Florida. The 15-pound St. Johns County Pet Center rescue is a “lap dog,” which makes her the ideal size for cuddling with the residents who eagerly await her Tuesday visits. She is also one of four dogs that makes frequent visits to The Palms; another, named Stella, comes on Thursdays, and two others, a long-haired dachshund and a blonde lab named Louey and Chloey, visit as part of The Palms’ Paws for Friendship partnership.
Leahy said that she found Latte’s visits to be most effective in memory care, a sentiment that resonated with Reaves, who has been working with memory care residents since February.
“The residents in memory care don’t get to go out as much as other residents do,” Reaves noted. “So for them … it’s meaningful to have someone visit them even on rainy days. They have a visit from Latte to look forward to and she brings them joy and warmth.”