On the staff directory in the foyer of the Lighthouse Nursing home, there is one picture in the bottom corner that bears quite a tale.
It’s not a picture of one of the nurses or even of one of the social workers there, it’s a picture of a strange looking cat named Rocky – and while he’s listed as director of cat services, he has a number of talents that he spreads throughout the halls of the home’s Dementia Unit.
Naturally, a Dementia Unit is a tough place as residents sometimes have trouble feeling comforted and often get confused. However, studies have shown that a cat or dog in such an environment can provide a basic feeling of comfort to those patients.
One area of comfort that the 23-pound Rocky seems quite adept at is being there for those that are dying.
It has become so commonplace to see him on the bed of a dying resident that he has been nicknamed ‘Death Cat’ for the past five years he has been at the Proctor Avenue facility.
Workers at Lighthouse said that Rocky has an uncanny ability to detect those in the last days of their lives, and especially those residents that seem to need comfort in those times.
“I never really believed in all that business about cats going to those who are dying and that hocus pocus,” said Jean DiMare, a worker on the unit. “Then, what I saw is that Rocky does know when someone needs some extra comfort. It’s not coincidence. There’s something to it.”
Lighthouse Executive Director Roger Marks said while it might be fact that Rocky has nine lives, he is convinced that Rocky also has a sixth sense.
“We always have a couple of people in the slow process of dying, but there’s a point in the last couple of days that it speeds up,” said Marks. “That’s exactly when the cat is attracted to them. He’s always there, sometimes curled up on the bed. I don’t know if it’s the scent or a change in temperature, but there is something happening there…When people are in the dying process, 90 percent of the time that cat will be in the room. Sometimes he knows it before we do.”
Added Lighthouse worker Mary McMahon, “He comes to people who seem to need comfort the most. He knows who needs him, really.”
However, Rocky’s job within the Cat Services department isn’t just confined to comforting the dying.
He’s a congenial companion on the unit and, for many residents and staff who are nowhere near dying, he is a happy presence.
Several residents on the ward like to host him in their room.
Some set up cat beds for him to sit on and others like to provide him a scratching post or a climbing station.
“The staff loves having him around,” said McMahon. “The residents, there are some that don’t like him, but the ones that love him really, really love him.”
Staff members shared that he has a unique taste for cantaloupe and even the insides of pumpkins.
“Once we got an Edible Arrangement and it had cantaloupe in it and we left it on the counter,” said Wendy Parris, a Lighthouse staffer. “The next thing we knew he was up on the counter with his face full of cantaloupe. Now, I have to bring him cantaloupe every day, and it has to be chopped really, really fine. He waits for me at the elevator.”
Marks said the cat adds character and warmth to an otherwise sterile, medical setting.
“The idea is this is a final home for people and we try to make it a warm home for people,” said Marks. “It’s a hallway with a bunch of rooms to the side. There’s only so much we can do. This is one way to make it a warm home here.”
Having pets in a medical setting like a nursing home, though, has not always been accepted.
Years ago, it was frowned upon. However, state officials at the Department of Public Health (DPH) said that all changed around eight years ago when reports came out indicating that pets in nursing homes were a positive thing for residents.
Jill Mazzola of the DPH said that studies from the Eden Project and the Pioneer Network changed the thinking regulation-wise.
“There have been a lot of studies done about how animals really calm down dementia patients especially,” said Mazzola. “They feel calm and relaxed. There’s still a regulation, but I think for the most part the animals in nursing homes have free reign aside from the kitchen areas…It was frowned upon in the past to see a cat on someone’s bed. I don’t think right now we would make it an issue.”
She said they do check to make sure the cats are confined to certain areas, that they are immunized and that they are cared for properly (i.e., the cat box is changed regularly and the dogs are walked frequently).
However, she said the benefits of having animals outweighs any concerns.
“Dementia patients will often ask for their mother, even though their mothers have been gone for years,” said Mazzola. “That feeling of having your mother makes them feel nurtured and cared for. I think the same thing plays out with the animals. I think the dementia patients feel a level of comfort and security. Just having a dog or cat come up and visit you and let you pet it is very comforting to them.”
Marks said he is fully in agreement with that philosophy.
“It would have been taboo – having a cat box in a medical setting 20 years ago,” said Marks. “You would have been slammed for it. I’d say 80 percent of nursing homes have pets today.”
Now, if Rocky keeps up his stellar work at Lighthouse, he might just be up for a promotion – perhaps vice president of cat napping.