As Joan Hanken, 84, watched a blaring TV set at the Skilled Nursing Facility at the Peconic Bay Medical Center, she often had to ask the people around her to repeat what they were saying.
But when Hanken spoke to Maira, the Yorkshire terrier who came to visit her, she didn’t have to worry that her poor hearing would affect the conversation.
“Oh, you’re just a doll aren’t you,” she cooed as she cupped Maira’s snout. “You’re a beautiful thing.”
Hanken never took her eyes off the calm terrier. It had been brought to the side of her wheelchair as she relayed a story about a dog she had for 15 years before moving into the skilled nursing home three years ago.
The smiles and the memories are signs of success for the nursing home's Pet Therapy program, which for years has been organized by the Kent Animal Shelter in Calverton.
Every Wednesday morning, animal shelter volunteers bring cats and dogs to the center to visit with the patients — some who come for physical therapy and some who live there. The cats come from the shelter and the dogs are certified therapy dogs owned by shelter volunteers.
Kimberly Bernth, director of recreation therapy at the center, said therapeutic benefits of the program are “unbelievable.”
“You see the smile on the patients’ faces," she said. "They remember the animals’ names.”
She said it reminds the residents about a time when they owned their own pets, and that it often helps the short-term patients feel more comfortable during their recovery.
“It brings a familiarity,” she said. “It makes them feel welcome and they just enjoy them each and every week.”
Pamela Green, director of the Kent Animal Shelter, said the pet therapy program is an important part of the shelter’s outreach mission.
“We’re able to reach them,” she said. “We see we’re making a difference to them, if only for a day, if only for a few hours.”
In Helen Tylenda’s room, a cat's purring could be heard from the doorway while she sat up in her bed stroking a large feline named Gray Silky.
“I like cats and he’s a very friendly cat, and in fact, he acts like he likes me, too,” Tylenda, 92, she said of the shelter cat. “He’s old and I sort of associate myself with him, too. We’re sort of put out to pasture.”
Tylenda, who has lived at the center for seven months, said she keeps on her windowsill a framed photo of her last dog, Beau, a maltipoo she had for 18 years.
“He was 18 years of undemanding love,” she said, adding that she was happy to have Gray Silky as a substitute. “He’s like my pet that visits once a week.”