‘Comforting creatures’
Program makes visiting hours at senior centers for the dogs
Author: Patricia Villers of the New Haven Register

SHELTON — Winston, an English Springer Spaniel, is truly a people-loving canine. He is the kind of a dog that lights up a room when he arrives on the scene. And the people he meets and greets can’t help but love him back.

So it’s no surprise Winston, 12, and his owner, Susan Hamann of Monroe, are partners in the Creature Comforts program run by the Connecticut VNA Hospice in Shelton. It is an affiliate of Home Healthcare and Hospice by Masonicare.

Hamann regularly takes Winston on rounds to visit elderly residents of United Methodist Homes’ Bishop Wicke Health Center at Wesley Village and Hewitt Organization’s Shelton Lakes and Hewitt Memorial Hospital. All three nursing facilities are in Shelton. The pair has been volunteering for 1 1/2 years, Hamann said. “We usually visit for about an hour,” she said of the jaunts.

On a recent morning, Hamann and Winston were at Bishop Wicke to say hello. They visited with 94-year-old Lillian Carroll, who lives at the skilled nursing care and rehabilitation facility.

Hamann chatted with Carroll as Winston just acted himself, doing his mellow-dog routine. The visit took place in a common room at Wicke, and on the counter there were pastries for visitors. Winston got a whiff of the pastry, and that’s all it took. That day, Hamann started giving Winston tiny pieces of a Danish pastry. “He’s a foodaholic,” she joked. When Carroll saw the dog devouring the tidbits, her face lit up. “You’d think he hadn’t eaten in a month,” she quipped.

Hamann asked Carroll whether she had ever owned a dog. “We always had dogs growing up,” Carroll replied. She said her father had a hound dog because he used to hunt birds. Winston was sporting a multi-colored bandanna, one of many he has available. Hamann said she puts a bandanna on him when it’s time to go visit someone in a nursing facility, so that he associates bandannas with work. Winston goes everywhere with Hamann. “He doesn’t know he’s a dog,” Hamann explained. She told Carroll that when Winston gets up in the morning, she brushes his teeth and cleans his ears. “Just like a baby,” Carroll commented as she petted Winston’s head. “I love that dog,” Carroll said.

Hamann said she is sure she gains more from the program than do the patients she and Winston visit. “When you are taking a (training) course they tell you that you will get so much more out of this (than the people you visit),” Hamann said, and she has found that to be true. “I just feel so happy about what he does,” she said. “This breed has an innate sense of what to do. He just knows.” Hamann said if someone is lying in bed, Winston “just jumps right up in bed and cuddles next to them.” He lets people know that he’s there and it’s time for a visit. “He has made so many people’s days.”

Jo-Ann Niski, volunteer coordinator with Connecticut VNA’s Hospice Program in Shelton, said there are several other animals available “waiting to be assigned.” Her territory includes the Shelton area and the Watertown area. A woman from Watertown, for instance, takes a trained dog to Masonicare’s Ashlar of Newtown, she said, to visit residents. Niski said a lap cat and a miniature horse also are trained to visit patients. “I have a menagerie” available for visits, Niski said. Since the miniature horse’s owner works full time, the hours she can take him places for visiting is limited.

Hamann, who is retired, said she got Winston in August 2000 from the English Springer Spaniel Club of Long Island Rescue program. He originally was from Massachusetts. “He died and went to Heaven when he moved in with me,” she said. She got involved with the Hospice volunteering when she took Winston to Grand Master’s Day in June 2005 at Masonicare’s Ashlar Village in Wallingford. There, Hamann said she was “recruited” by Debra Richards, director of volunteer services for Connecticut VNA. “She saw (Winston) interacting with the crowd there,” Hamann said, and recruited the two of them. Richards said pet visits reduce stress and anxiety, and have been proven to lower patients’ blood pressure.

Pet visits “allow people an avenue for life review,” Richards said. When a pet is brought into a facility, patients will remember the animals they had owned in the past. “They may say I had a dog just like that. It brings back memories for them.” “And for (some people), to touch a dog can have a calming effect on them.” Richards said animals “are a safe place for people to emote.” She said they may express something to a pet that they would not say to a person. In addition to dogs and cats, they have a guinea pig and a rabbit that are trained to visit patients, she said.

Hamann’s parents live at Ashlar Village, and when she visits them she brings Winston along. “Everybody there knows him, “she said. “He’s my mother’s grand-dog.”

ON THE COVER: Peter Casolino/Register – Susan Hamann, right and her dog, Winston, visit Lillian Carroll at Bishop Wicke Health Center at Wesley Village where Carroll lives as part of the Creature Comfort program. (Color photo)

Black and white photos by Peter Casolino/Register:
Susan Hamann, right, and Winston visit with Lillian Carroll