It look's like you don't have Adobe Flash Player installed. Get it now.
Lurine Bryan, a senior citizen in the West Vue Nursing Home in West Plains, is very fond of her yellow cat, Heidi.
"I’ve always liked to cuddle something. It used to be babies. And I always kept a teddy bear, or a ‘wooly’ cat or something to pet on while I’m sitting on my chair,” Bryan said.
The cat lives in the room with Bryan, but the policy to allow animals to stay in the rooms is fairly recent. Denise Montgomery, Bryan's daughter, remembers when her mother first moved into the independent living facility next door.
At that time, Bryan owned a cat named “Miss Kitty.”
Montgomery learned that full-time pets were not allowed. But she knew her mother loved this cat—-and that she had already given up a lot, including much of her independence, and her home. The CEO and staff agreed to give it a try. Montgomery says “Miss Kitty” began going door to door, curious as a kitten, checking everyone and everything out.
“She was very assertive. She was a queen, and she thought she ruled the place, literally,” said Montgomery.
Missy Kitty was also a hit with the residents, and she even won over the doubters among the staff. Today, West Vue allows a cat in the room, as long as the resident—or a relative--feeds it and changes its litter box. Montgomery says it's made all the difference for her mother, who doesn't see very well anymore.
When asked what having a cat in the room means to her mother emotionally, Montgomery holds back tears.
“Everything,” she says. “Just think about it.”
Because of Bryan and her daughter, West Vue now has an "Animal Therapy" program. Montgomery says she's seen a cat sooth a woman whom the staff members couldn't calm down, and one man with Alzheimer's looked forward to the moments when, even in his last days, his cat would curl up next to him in bed. His obituary picture was of him and that cat.
Animals have been used as therapy for years in nursing homes, and that goes on every day in the Ozarks.
Researchers have found that interacting with pets affects a person's social behavior with humans. It also has been shown to reduce loneliness and help ward off depression.
[SOUND: water in fish tank filter]
About 30 miles northeast, another nursing home, Mountain View Health Care, also has animals: the water filter in the fish tank is the background noise for the large goldfish that live in the Alzheimer's Unit.
“We’ve had turtles. We’ve had chickens. We’ve had rabbits. We’ve had dogs,” says activities director Kris Reeves. She says Alzheimer's residents find the fish soothing.
“They just will watch the fish, and it will calm them down sometimes. When nothing else works, sometimes that will,” Reeves said.
Mountain View Health Care also has a guinea pig and a cockatiel in a common area for residents to enjoy.
Every day, without fail, resident Nona Roggensees, whose name is pronounced "Noni," asks to be wheeled in to see her yellow bird, Sunny.
[Sound: Nona talking with Sunny]
Roggensees was given this bird about five years ago by a man who used to bring rabbits by for the residents to see.
She tells me about the days when she moved to the Ozarks as a kid from Kansas.
Her speech is a bit slurred now, and she's no longer mobile.
The bird used to be in her room, but now the staff keep it here for everyone to enjoy.
Nona tells me that Sunny knows her, and perks up when she comes around.
Roggensees: Yes, she climbs up and down and hollers.
Davidson: She climbs up and down and hollers when she sees you.
Nona sticks her finger near the cage, and tries to get Sunny to speak.
“S-P-E-A-K! Speak,” she commands.
When the bird chirps, she praises it and laughs.
Kris Reeves is very familiar with Nona’s routine.
“Daily, she’ll go over there. She’ll sing to her. She’ll talk to her. She feeds her, and they have a very good relationship. It’s a daily thing. And it’s sometimes two or three times a day,” Reeves said.
Now that she's nearing her final chapter, Nona tells me there are two things in her life that keep her spirits up: her faith in Jesus, and this petite, yellow bird with cheeks painted red like rouge.
Both are linked to something else she loves: singing. Nona asks if I would like to hear one of the praise songs she sings with a worship group, and of course, I say, "yes."
[Sound: singing, “Lord, help me live from day to day…”, bird chirping]
Almost immediately, Sunny chirps in, and this solo becomes a duet. Nona smiles and nods, as though Sunny had come in right on cue, and keeps singing.
Davidson: "If there were one word that you had to use to describe your feelings toward Sunny, what would it be?"
Nona doesn't have many people stop by to visit her, she tells, me, but she says that's okay. She still has something that needs her, and that makes her feel important every day: her little, yellow, feathered companion.
For KSMU's Sense of Community Series, I'm Jennifer Davidson.
[Sound: Singing and bird chirping fades out]