Given her aversion to nursing homes, how did she get herself–and her dogs–into this?
Aug 26, 2014
Tuesday morning, 9:45. I stood outside the nursing home, clutching my dogs’ leashes. Deep breaths, I told myself. You don’t want them to pick up on your tension and start barking. My two Pomeranians, Honeybear and Cody, looked up at me expectantly, as if to ask, “So, what are we doing here?”
Good question. Why had I volunteered to bring the dogs to visit with the residents? “You’re welcome to spend as much time as you’d like,” the activity director had told me over the phone. “Whatever you’re comfortable with.”
What I was comfortable with would be not setting one foot (or paw) inside at all. Don’t get me wrong, I loved helping folks. But nursing homes? No way. They depressed me. And scared me.
It went back to my days as a high school choral director. A surprising profession considering my shyness. I joke with my husband, Danny, that I’m a hole-in-the-wall person: I’m so shy that in a social situation, if there were a hole in the wall, that’s where you’d find me, hiding.
While directing the chorus helped me develop some confidence–with students, fellow teachers, even in front of an audience–I never did work up the nerve to start a conversation with a stranger.
I thought that would be my stumbling block when our chorus performed at a convalescent home. No, the problem was the facility. The smell and grime turned my stomach. Worse, the residents seemed miserable.
I hoped our singing would bring them some joy, but it was impossible for me to be joyful in such a wretched place. After that, I vowed never to set foot in a nursing home again. And I hadn’t. Not for 20 years.
If only I hadn’t seen that article the other day! Danny was working in the basement (we run a home business making hand-painted silk accessories). I was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table when a photo caught my eye–adorable dogs being petted by senior citizens.
“Visit From Locals and Their Dogs Brings Joy to Nursing Home Residents,” the headline read.
Good for them, I thought, shuddering. Quickly, I turned the page.
That’s when I heard it. A voice. Male. Not Danny, who was still down in the basement. Not anyone I recognized.
You have cute little dogs, the voice said. You can do that too.
Wow, I’m hearing things, I thought. I must be really tired....
Dee, you can do that. There it was again, more emphatic.
“God, if that’s you, you’re going to have to give me something else to do,” I said. “I can’t do nursing homes, remember?” Not only was I hearing voices, I was talking back!
Yes, you can. This time it was more than a statement. It was a command.
“Fine, I’ll do it!” I blurted.
Silence. The voice was gone.
My promise hung in the air. I can’t back out on a promise to God. But what if there’s a good reason I can’t go through with it? I wondered. That’s how badly I wanted to avoid going into a nursing home.
I mean, walking into. But maybe “going into” in the more permanent sense was what really scared me, now that I was getting older myself.
I glanced at Honeybear and Cody. They perked up. Nothing shy about them. They loved people. Maybe a little too much. Whenever we took them into a place with a lot of people, they got excited. And excited Poms, well, they get yappy, which I was sure folks in a nursing home wouldn’t appreciate.
Besides, they probably had to get certified for pet therapy first. The dogs in that newspaper photo were wearing vests.
Poms are known for their soft, fluffy fur–that’s what makes them perfect for cuddling. If I had to cover up the dogs’ coats, wouldn’t that keep people from petting them and defeat the whole purpose of the visit?
Just to confirm my suspicions, I called a nursing home in town. “They don’t have to be certified therapy dogs,” the activity director told me. “We just need proof that they’re current on their vaccinations. How about next Tuesday morning? I’ll put you on the schedule.”
I hung up, muttering, “Guess I’m not getting out of this so easily....” I told Danny about the newspaper article, the voice, how I’d somehow signed myself up for the most dreadful volunteer work.
“This is crazy!” I exclaimed. “Even if I didn’t hate nursing homes, I’m no good at talking to strangers. I’m a hole-in-the-wall person. You and I both know that!”
“Maybe God knows something we don’t,” Danny said. “Why not try it? What’s the worst that could happen?”
Now I was at the nursing home, a nervous wreck. The worst that could happen? The dogs could start yapping and upset the residents. I could freeze up or, heck, even pass out–from fear, shyness or both.
Get a grip, Dee, I told myself. I grabbed the leashes more firmly and said in what I hoped was a confident voice, “Come on, boys.”
In the lobby there was a fresh, lemony scent. The place was sparkling. So different from that miserable home I’d visited years before. A woman with a friendly smile came up to us. “You must be Dee,” she said, then bent down to pet the dogs. “The folks here can’t wait to meet you guys. Follow me.”
She led us into the TV room. I didn’t even have a chance to worry about what to say to people. They peppered me with questions about the dogs.
Honeybear and Cody lapped up the attention, their fluffy tails wagging like wild, their tongues out in their biggest doggie grins. They were definitely excited, but they didn’t bark once. All I heard was happy panting. Amazing.
Next we visited the physical-therapy department. After that, we went room to room. I was surprised at how easy it was to talk to strangers about my dogs.
Then we walked into a room where an older man was sleeping. His hands were bent and deformed, his face misshapen. I gasped. All those fears I’d had about nursing homes came rushing back. I tiptoed for the door.
Just as we reached the threshold, the man woke. “Hello,” he said. “You got a couple of dogs there?”
“Yes. Two Pomeranians,” I said, hoping he wasn’t a dog person.
“I love dogs!” he said. “You can put the little guys right here on the bed.”
What could I do but set them down next to him? There was a fan going. Honeybear flipped over onto his back so the air ruffled the fur on his tummy. The man laughed. So did I. That broke the ice.
“I’m Jack,” he said. His body may have been falling apart, but his mind was in great shape. We talked about history, current events, religion, only stopping when I noticed he was getting tired. “Thank you for coming,” Jack said. “See you soon, little guys.”
“Next week,” I said.
That was the beginning of Pom Tuesdays at the nursing home. I saved Jack’s room for last so he could visit with his “little guys” as long as he wanted.
One day I came in to find Jack wearing an oxygen mask. I put the dogs on the bed beside him. “These little guys make me feel better,” he said, stroking their fur. “Especially now.” He pulled off the mask and held it over Honeybear’s tummy. Honeybear wriggled with delight in the breeze.
“Would you pray for me?” Jack asked, reaching out a gnarled hand.
I took his hand in mine, and we asked God to bring him comfort and peace.
The next Tuesday I was headed for Jack’s room when a friend of his stopped me. “Jack died last week,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
I was too upset to stay. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle going back the following week, but then I thought of that voice I’d heard.
If God had let me walk away from my promise, if he’d let me walk out of Jack’s room that first day, we all would have missed out–Jack, the little guys and I–on the blessing of our friendship. My husband was right: God definitely knew something I didn’t.
That’s why I keep visiting the nursing home. The little guys are gone now, but my little gals, female Pomeranians named Brownie and Muffy, love Pom Tuesdays just as much. One of our favorite friends is Michael. He was a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War, then worked as a military dog handler.
We met in the physical-therapy room. A stroke left him paralyzed on the right side and unable to say more than a few words. His eyes lit up when he saw the dogs. “Here, hold Brownie,” I said. “No.” He pointed to his paralyzed right arm.
This time I was the one who insisted, “Yes, you can.” I showed him how to hold her on his lap with his good arm. Then I took Muffy around to the other PT patients.
When I looked back to check on Michael, I saw him kiss Brownie on the head. She gazed up at him so adoringly that for a few seconds, I was jealous. They were the picture of joy. That’s right, joy. In a nursing home. And I’m not shy about saying it!
Watch and listen as Dee shares stories of her visits to the nursing home.
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