How one nursing home is helping its residents regain a sense of purpose.

Every day, you can find Greg Moore taking two kittens for a walk.

Moore, who has Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, once worked for the government as a communications lobbyist. He moved into Catalina Springs Memory Care facility in 2014 when he was only 67 years old because his illnesses made it too difficult for his wife to care for him on her own.

According to Antoinette Manning, resident care coordinator at Catalina Springs, Moore doesn't usually want to be bothered or speak to anyone. He occasionally perceives normal social interaction as threatening. It's understandable: Many people who move to senior living centers at the end of long, productive, lives — especially those experiencing forms dementia — find themselves frustrated.


As for the two kittens? They're part of a new program called "Bottle Babies" that allows senior living residents to feed and play with kittens who are in need of constant care.

Photo via Pima Animal Care Center, used with permission.

Taking care of these kittens infuses many of Catalina Springs' residents with a renewed sense of purpose.  

"We have some residents who are chronically searching, chronically looking for something that is familiar, something that holds meaning to them," Rebecca Hamilton, the health service director at Catalina Springs, wrote in an email.

"We can place one of the kittens in their hands, and suddenly they're not searching, they're not stressed."

Photo via Pima Animal Care Center, used with permission.

Hamilton came up with the idea to bring the kittens to the facility. She's a veteran kitten fosterer at Pima Animal Care Center and knows that really young kittens require constant care. She thought having the residents at Catalina Springs look after them might be a mutually beneficial program.

From the moment the kittens arrived, the staff noticed a significant, positive change in the residents' moods.

"They [seem to] recognize them as babies, and the human instinct to nurture just kicks in automatically," Hamilton explained.

Photo via Pima Animal Care Center, used with permission.

"We have noticed that [in] interacting with the kittens, we have residents who struggled with putting complete sentences together, or struggled to find words, could all of a sudden communicate," Hamilton explained about the kittens' effect on the residents. "They could look at you and say, 'This kitten is hungry' or 'I love this little baby.'"

It's a win-win relationship. The residents help feed and play with the kittens, and the kittens, in turn, give the residents a sense of purpose. Those moments of clarity and communication that the kittens bring out in their human caretakers are "incredibly monumental," Hamilton said. According to the staff at Catalina Springs, that feeling of being useful and productive can often be the best medicine when dealing with an incurable disease.

Photo via Pima Animal Care Center, used with permission.

As for Greg Moore? His standoffishness softened the minute he met Turtle and Peaches, Manning said.

Moore has a daily routine where he puts a kitten under each arm, announces that "it's time for their walk," and walks them around the facility. Manning said even his wife has noticed a difference in his demeanor since the kittens arrived.

"It’s like they’re grandparents again," Manning said. "It’s very soothing to see."

Photo via Pima Animal Care Center, used with permission.

The program is bigger than kittens. It’s about finding a way to improve quality of life for people in assisted living and giving them a renewed sense purpose.

Few people want to think about what life will be like when they reach an age where they can no longer care for themselves, especially if their memory is failing. But there are a lot of ways these centers are making sure residents feel important, needed, and loved. Clemson Downs, an assisted living facility, had an art show featuring its residents' work, and Lantern Assisted Living in Ohio is revamping their whole facility to feel more like real homes rather than hospital rooms. Even just a change in scenery can change a resident's outlook.

Pima Animal Care Center is also planning to expand soon, and several other animal welfare organizations have expressed interest in starting similar programs. Pet therapy is known to benefit patients living with these mental illnesses immensely, so it's encouraging to see the idea catching on.

Alzheimer's and dementia may be incurable, but that doesn't mean life ends with a diagnosis. People like Tom Dunne who has Alzheimer's keep moving forward by writing (and tweeting). Paul Hitchmough, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2014 records his own music videos on YouTube. And Craig Moore makes sure to take the Catalina Springs kitten residents for a walk everyday.

Even a small thing like that can be enough to make life a little better.

Photo via Pima Animal Care Center, used with permission.

True

Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

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