For Doris Hill, who grew up on a farm, cats have always been a cherished part of her life. Even at St. Mary’s Health Care Centre in Trochu, where she currently lives, Doris still has a few cats she “takes care of” daily.
Doris has dementia, and it’s important that she is engaged in different things that are meaningful, such as being around cats, says Andrea King, physiotherapy and occupational therapy assistant at St. Mary’s Health Care Centre.
“It gives her something to care for,” says Andrea.
Recreation therapists look for ways to connect with residents, especially those with dementia. The team at St. Mary’s recognized that many of their rural residents longed to be with animals again and that sharing a love of animals was a great way to connect.
Cats, even stuffed or robotic versions, provide Doris, a former nursing assistant from Ontario, with an opportunity to focus her caring nature.
“Doris worries about other residents who may need more help and will ask about them or point them out to be checked on,” says Andrea.
“As she is a nurturing person, I believe that’s why having a stuffed cat is helpful for her.”
In addition to toy animals, teams in many facilities have adopted real animals for residents to interact with and nurture, and at St. Mary’s, they’ve also slowly introduced robotic kittens for residents who might benefit from them.
The robotic kittens being used in the recreational therapy program were generously donated by local business Trochu Motors due to a special connection: the mother of one of the owners is also a resident at St. Mary’s Lodge.
While the staff have given Doris one of the robotic kittens, she currently has three stuffed cats that are the focus of her care. Her daughter, Debbie McGrath, says she prefers these three at the moment because “they can’t talk back or run away from her,” she laughs.
The relationship between residents with dementia and animals or baby dolls can feel very real. “When dementia becomes more prevalent, the differentiation between what’s real and what’s not can become faded,” Andrea says.
“Doris tucks one kitten in her bed every day to keep it safe. She sometimes brings it out and shows other residents her ‘baby.’ She goes and checks on her ‘baby’ every few hours, and it is her sleeping companion,” says Andrea. “She has a strong connection with it.”
Andrea adopted a real cat, Romeo, specifically with her residents in mind, and she brings it in regularly to spend time at St. Mary’s. Staff have observed that Romeo's presence results in residents reminiscing about their childhood and improves their mood when he is playing. Many residents can be focused on the cat chasing a red laser or playing with a string on a stick for more than 20 minutes.
Randi Hogg, recreation therapist at St. Mary’s, says she’s seen the robotic and stuffed cats spark an increased sense of purpose as residents care for something, as well as a reduction in agitation and anxiety in residents.
Due to infection control guidelines, especially during COVID-19, the robotic kittens can’t be shared between residents, so they are gifted individually once the resident seems like a good candidate to benefit from the therapy. Often staff can tell from how the resident interacts with the real cat and other stuffed animals.
“Animals, whether inanimate, real or robotic, can serve as something to discuss with visitors, family and staff,” says Randi. “They can all have powerful effects.”