How one nursing home is helping its residents regain a sense of purpose.
'It’s like they’re grandparents again.'
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.
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."
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.
"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.
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."
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.