When I first heard the idea of dogs in nursing homes, I thought, ‘No way,’” said Ted Goins, who was a nursing home administrator before becoming president and CEO of Lutheran Services Carolinas (LSC) 15 years ago. Goins changed his mind after a conversation with William H. Thomas.
In 1996, Thomas wrote Life Worth Living: How Someone You Love Can Still Enjoy Life in a Nursing Home (Vanderwyk & Burnham, 1996). In it he describes Eden Alternative, a program and philosophy that seeks to deinstitutionalize nursing homes so residents may live fuller, richer lives. One of the program’s articles of faith is that dogs are good for residents.
After reading the book, Goins led the way in implementing Eden Alternative values in LSC homes, which now welcome furry — and sometimes feathered and finned — friends.
Currently, LSC’s top dog is Rusty, who lives at Trinity Place, which offers skilled nursing, rehabilitation and assisted living services in Albemarle, N.C.
Rusty came to Trinity Place after its previous dog, Heidi, “left to pursue other interests,” said administrator Courtney Adams. Social worker Lisa Clayton knew of some available dogs at the local Humane Society and arranged for Rusty to come for a trial visit.
It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that Rusty, who was about a year old, would be an excellent fit. Calm and wise beyond his years, Rusty slipped seamlessly into the world of Trinity Place and into the hearts of its staff and residents. He loves to greet people with his paws on the counter of the front desk, occasionally displacing Jena Miller, Trinity Place’s two-legged receptionist.
With a gentle nuzzle and the wag of a tail, Rusty creates a sense of normalcy and makes Trinity Place feel like a home and not an institution. “He’s an icebreaker,” Miller said. “When people come in, he makes them feel comfortable. He connects people to us right away. Everybody loves Rusty.”
Inside most of the time, Rusty also has the run of the home’s enclosed courtyard, where he likes to retrieve tennis balls and roll around in the grass.
Many residents keep a stash of treats for Rusty when he visits their rooms. In fact, his food bowl goes untouched for long stretches because he grazes so much while he circulates around the building, residents say.
“He’s a sweetheart,” said resident Sarah Blalock, who looks forward to her daily dose of Rusty. “He helps us. He makes me laugh.”
Rusty visits Margaret Tyson every day. “He makes me feel better,” she said.
Increasingly, science backs up the idea that dogs do make us feel better. Petting a dog can decrease levels of stress hormones, help lower blood pressure, and even release a hormone called oxytocin that is associated with bonding and affection.
Holly Smith, a ward clerk at Trinity Place, believes Rusty has a sense that draws him to comfort those who are suffering or nearing the end of life.
When Smith’s grandfather was dying of cancer, Rusty would come in every afternoon while the family gathered and lie on the floor at the foot of his bed. “It was like he was checking on us,” she said. “If he wasn’t there, my mom would say, ‘Where’s Rusty?’”
Adams has been gratified by how Rusty lifts everyone’s spirits. “It really is amazing how much happiness he brings and what a difference he can make in residents’ lives,”she said.