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Mercy’s Hallmar residents get new therapy dog
Part sheep dog, part poodle, all therapist
CEDAR RAPIDS — After a monthslong search to fill an important position, there’s a new girl in training to fill the vacancy at Mercy’s Hallmar.
With a medium build that comes in slightly smaller her predecessor, Lyla is part sheep dog, part poodle, and all therapist for the residents she will be living with every day.
The new employee, now 2 years old, has come a long way in her first two months of training since starting in January — from a shy and skittish pup to a calming presence. Her natural pedigree fills a few job requirements: medium to large dog, calm temperament and people-oriented.
“She was afraid of everything — doors that opened, carts clanking, the variety of people,” said Tawnya Salsbery, senior director of post-acute and senior services at Mercy. “She’s now able to stay two hours in her room without barking.”
Further training requirements for full-time employment include increasing the amount of time alone without barking. With quick progress, Lyla’s supervisors anticipate she’ll be out of her probationary period soon.
A full-time residency
Lyla’s position was first opened in 2021 for Hope, a Bernese Mountain dog who brought residents a new feeling of home as Hallmar’s first residential therapy dog in decades. With continued restrictions posed by the pandemic for those in skilled nursing care, the Bernese Mountain dog proved her value by providing emotional support in uncertain times.
Hope died in August, after her veterinarians found a bleeding tumor on her heart. She was 6.
But the legacy left by Hope, and the role that dogs play in Hallmar’s evolving model of care for residents, is here to stay.
For resident Harold Pitz, Hope was a listening ear in adjusting to a new stage of life without the creature comforts of home like Miko, the German shepherd he had to leave behind when he moved into Hallmar in December 2020.
Before Hope’s arrival, he took a stuffed dog on walks and showed pictures of Miko to other residents.
When Hope took on the new job, he visited her room daily for morning greetings. In the evening, the man who served as an elder at Middle Amana Community Church came by to give her a special treat and whisper a prayer in her ear.
He called the Bernese Mountain dog not just Hope, but “my Hope.” Several months after Hope passed, his own dog died, too.
Soon, he looks forward to bringing back his evening routine in much of the same way with Lyla. Dogs like Hope played an integral part in the daily routines of several residents.
Sister Mary Lou Podzimek, 88, has only been a resident at Hallmar since May. But Lyla’s March birthday party, complete with dog-friendly birthday cake, gave her a taste of familiarity that she hadn’t felt in years.
Her first dog, a Cocker Spaniel, was a birthday present from her father at age 2. She called him Dibbie, because she couldn’t actually pronounce the name the dog was given.
Her fondest memories of the dog include summers where neighbors would carefully drive around Dibbie, who would sleep on the street’s pavement without a care.
The Sisters of Mercy member hasn’t had a dog since she lost Dibbie at age 14. At age 17 in 1952, she entered the convent.
But after living most of her life without canines, dogs still mean “a great deal” to her, she said. And dogs like Lyla make her feel more at home after her most recent move.
During the vacancy, residents frequently inquired about the ongoing head hunt for Hope’s replacement. Hallmar started searching for a replacement almost immediately, adopting Lyla in January from Decorah.
Hope calmed residents down when other approaches didn’t work. She offered comfort in emotionally tangible ways and was skilled at redirecting or refocusing upset residents, even when nurses and staff couldn’t on their own.
So when she passed, there was a void at Hallmar.
“It took away one of the aspects that brought joy and purpose to our residents,” said Salsbery. “It’s like when your own house isn’t as full without a dog or a child.”
Though many of the challenges posed by COVID-19 have gotten more bearable with fewer lockdowns, fewer covered faces and more visitation, Hope’s role still is as important as ever.
As Hallmar looks toward the opening of its new Hallmar Village in Cedar Rapids this fall, the presence posed by Hope and Lyla are only a preview of the facility’s transition away from institutional care to a more homelike model.
At Hallmar Village, dogs like Lyla will have a fenced in yard and large walking areas, a dog park, a dog drinking fountain and a dog spa. Residents in some levels of care will be able to bring their own pets.
The benefits of therapy dogs promote success both in personal living and with family relationships as residents find new joys in life.
For those with dementia, Lyla is a conversation tool that provides immeasurable confidence and comfort for visits with family.
“If your family comes, what do you (talk about with) someone whose memory isn’t great? With her, they don’t have to recall anything,” Salsbery said. “It’s a conversation starter that there’s no wrong answer to. You’re always right in the conversation, it helps you with confidence.”
And for families who may struggle with guilt knowing their loved ones aren’t living at home, Lyla brings peace of mind, too.
“They know not only do their loved ones receive care here, but they have moments of joy,” Salsbery said. “No matter what type of day you’re having, you’re going to have happiness at that moment with her.”
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