The soothing sound and gentle vibrations of a kitten purring brings contentment.

The happy bark of a dog on a lap brings joy.

And the feel of their soft fur evokes hugs and displays of affection.

These companion pets are bringing smiles and laughter to the residents of Spectrum Health Reed City Hospital Rehabilitation and Nursing Center when they need it most—after more than a year of being isolated from in-person visits from family and friends.

“I saw her and I just fell in love with her,” said resident Susan Schildhouse, while holding her dog Penny on her lap. “She’s my baby.”

Schildhouse talks to Penny just like a real dog.

“She takes care of me, don’t you?” she asks Penny. “Yes, you do. I love you to pieces.”

Penny is one of 34 life-like companion pets the rehabilitation center received in March through a grant from the Michigan Long Term Care Ombudsman Program and the state’s Aging and Adult Services Agency.

The pets, made by Ageless Innovations, respond to human voice and touch by using sensors and speakers. The robotic, stuffed animals bark, purr, lift paws, blink eyes, turn heads and roll over. They even have a mute button.

Pets help fill visitor gap

Denise Tinkham, a social worker at the rehabilitation and nursing center, applied for a grant that provided a pet for residents diagnosed with dementia, as well as those who have experienced cognitive decline or who have experienced isolation and loneliness due to visitor restrictions because of COVID-19.

When the pets arrived, about a year into the pandemic, that entailed just about everyone, Tinkham said.

They were an instant hit.

“The response was much more favorable than I had anticipated,” Tinkham said. “Nearly everyone that received a pet had a positive response—a smile bigger than we’ve seen for a while, or others where the response was even more dramatic.”

One long-term resident with dementia had a difficult time after being isolated following a positive COVID-19 test.

After being presented with a kitten, she rebounded sharply, Tinkham said.

“The pet has been a bright spot,” she said.

Except for a few days when limited visitors were allowed, the residents haven’t had in-person visits from family or friends since before the pandemic.

“The pandemic has been especially hard on nursing center residents,” said Jeff Godfrey, administrator at the rehabilitation and nursing center. “The companion pets have lifted their spirits and even the spirits of our (team members) because they see the residents enjoying themselves.”

The team members bought collars for the pets and helped each resident pick names for their kitten or dog—some picking a name of a pet they had years ago. Name tags were affixed to their colorful collars.

Making it official

The pets were even formally adopted during a May 3 ceremony, with 18th Probate District Court Judge Tyler Thompson officiating.

Thompson gave each resident an adoption certificate, while cheers and applause rang through the facility activities room.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had a pet adoption for these type of pets,” Thompson told the residents. “And I think it’s really, really special.”

Spectrum Health recreation therapist Heather Nicklas said the pets provide companionship to the residents, just as their names implies.

“We actually have residents that treat them just like their pets,” Nicklas said. “They bring them to activities with them.”

Nicklas said the residents had fun naming their pets.

Carolyn Burrell named her dog Smoke, just like a dog she had at home.

“Hello, Smoke, you’re staying with me,” she said when she received her dog.

Virginia Polhamus calls her cat Flapjack. She likes to tell stories about eating flapjacks on trips to Texas.

“I’m not fussy,” Polhamus said. “We’d usually have them at breakfast, but once in a great while we’d have pancake supper.”

William Franklin is enjoying his cat.

“It’s a nice cat,” he said. “We had a couple of cats—Little Horse and Suzie, I think it was.”

Some residents even sleep with their pets nestled next to them on their pillows.

Furry friends provide comfort

“They make little noises and stuff. She sleeps with me all the time, she never leaves me and it’s a blessing,” Schildhouse said of Penny. “I’ve been in this home for probably six months, almost, and I don’t get to see my husband very much.”

“It helps bring back memories of when they had pets at home,” Nicklas said. “I think it’s a wonderful program and we’re thankful for the ombudsman program for setting it up, to provide the funding for it.”

The Reed City Hospital Rehabilitation and Nursing Center has two real cats roaming its halls, Sonny and Cher, along with an aquarium and bird aviary—all aimed at providing a more home-like atmosphere for the residents.

The introduction of companion pets has been a great addition to the mix.

“I continue to receive positive comments from staff and families about this program,” Tinkham said. “It surely has been a bright spot for our elders during these challenging times.”

Just ask Resident Eleanor Eichenberg, who adores her dog, Honey.

“I like her, she’s my friend,” Eichenberg said. “I don’t have a husband anymore. He went to heaven, so I have Honey now.”

Eichenberg held Honey close.

“She’s a good little girl,” she said smiling.