TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Sitting reclined in a chair in a corner of her room at Capstone Village, 82-year-old Shirley Johnson gazed out of the window listless, occasionally turning her head to glance at the people in her room.
And in walked Maggie.
Johnson immediately turned her head in Maggie’s direction as she trotted up to the side of her chair, wagging her bushy tail. Johnson’s eyes brightened, and her lips curled into a faint smile as she stretched her hand toward the curly-haired, 2-year-old, black Aussiedoodle.
Maggie gave Johnson a quick sniff before licking her hand and allowing herself to be petted.
“I enjoy dogs because I had dogs,” Johnson said while brushing Maggie’s ears. “I had a yellow lab mix name Lad. Most dogs react with me because I react with them. They make me feel more relaxed.”
Every Thursday afternoon in October, therapy dogs from Hand in Paw, a Birmingham-based animal assisted therapy nonprofit, pay a visit to the residents of Capstone Village to lift their spirits and improve their well-being.
Emily Cheatwood, program director, said they started working with Capstone Village this past summer.
“This is one of the many programs that we partner with throughout North-Central Alabama to improve human health and well-being through animal-assisted interventions,” she said.
Troy Cannaday, executive director of Capstone Village, said adding pet therapy to the slate of programs at the luxury retirement community has helped them to fulfill their focus of alleviating the stresses and challenges of loneliness and disengagement for its residents.
“As we get older, we have less and less physical contact that is meaningful,” Cannaday said. “We get that love and affection from a spouse or a significant other, but, as we get older, connecting by physical touch may fade.
“When you look at programs like pet therapy, it provides that opportunity for our residents to reengage and connect through physical touch.”
Carol Develice, Maggie’s owner and pet therapy partner for the past year, said she realized how helpful animals could be when she got a Scottish Terrier in 2011 while fighting breast cancer.
Her dog was so helpful to her during that time that she was inspired to go into equine therapy to provide others with the “tremendous value of animal-human interaction.”
It didn’t work out, so she started volunteering with Hand in Paw.
“I love interacting with the people and watching the joy of bringing them out of a dark place,” Develice said. “Just making someone’s day a little happier and breaking a routine, especially with the dementia patients, is worth it.”
To become a therapy team with Hand in Paw, a person and their animal – it doesn’t matter what kind as long as it can be leashed – have to go through four, two-hour workshops. The animal has be at least a year old, take a skills test and have the right temperament.
Cheatwood said they’re looking for more pet therapy team volunteers.
“We believe that neither human nor animal can do this alone,” she said. “They need to be a team.”
The University of Alabama has owned Capstone Village since 2010. It has approximately 150 residents.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.