116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — At Mercy’s Hallmar, there’s a new resident who always turns heads in the hallway.
Hope the Bernese Mountain dog, one of Hallmar’s newest residents, is also one of its newest employees. At 5 years old and 104 pounds, Hallmar’s first residential therapy dog in decades isn’t just a pretty face — she knows her purpose.
In the ever-looming uncertainty posed by the pandemic to those in skilled nursing care, Hope makes a difference.
For residents like Harold Pitz, she’s a listening ear in adjusting to a new stage of life without the creature comforts of home like pets that many take for granted. Pitz, who moved to Hallmar in December, had to leave Miko, his 19-year-old German shepherd, behind.
“It’s hard not to see him,” he said.
Every day, he goes to Hope’s room to say good morning. Every night, he gives her a special treat and whispers a prayer in her ear. For the man who served as an elder at Middle Amana Community Church, it’s a special act of care.
“Because she deserves it,” he explained to The Gazette — calling her not just Hope, but “my Hope.”
Before her arrival at the end of August, he would hold his stuffed dog, who he would take on walks, show pictures of Miko to others and talk about him, said Tawnya Salsbery, senior director of post-acute and senior services at Mercy. For residents like Pitz, Hope brings a new quality of life to a different stage in life.
“When residents have to make the decision to leave home, that’s hard enough in itself,” she said. “For many people, animals are their best friend, their best companion.”
While Mercy has offered pet therapy for many years, Hope represents a shift in nursing care at Hallmar as the organization seeks to move away from an institutional model to a style of living that makes residents feel like they’re living in their home. As Hallmar adjusts best practices for community living, pets are becoming an integral part of the picture with research showing positive effects on health and well-being.
With no formal training, Hope’s main qualification is her gentle, patient temperament. A true Bernese Mountain dog — a breed known for their calm and affectionate temperament — Hope just likes to be around people.
For Pitz, it’s the sincerity of her glances and accommodating nature that reminds him most of Miko.
For Gloria Klinger, one of the hardest parts of moving to Hallmar in January was the loss of companionship from her Golden Retriever, Pooka, who she named after Disney’s Anastasia’s dog.
“I enjoy Hope because I had to give up my dog,” she said, recalling the times Pooka could sleep on her bed.
Like Hope, Pooka is also gainfully employed, helping residents in memory care at Stoney Point Meadows, Klinger said.
With visitor limitations still in place at times as a COVID-19 precaution, Hope makes Hallmar a better place, said nurse tech Liv Lanham.
“They know Hope is here,” Lanham said, calling the dog a coping mechanism and anxiety reliever for many of the 37 residents.
With Hope, residents mesmerized by the depths of the dog’s understanding brown eyes are sometimes more than just distracted or redirected — they arrive at a form of peace in the communal interactions.
“No matter how much we try to make it not this way, people are lonely,” said Salsbery. “They’re lonely in a different way than the general population.”
Over time, she said that Hallmar may even be able to reduce medication usage for those with anxiety, depression, dementia and other mental health conditions, given studies that point to that in other homes with therapy dogs like Hope.
“If (residents) get to pet her just once a day, they’re pretty happy about that,” she said. “You can’t go in a room and not see the residents light up and be so happy.”
Not everyone can articulate what they love most about Hope, though. One immense benefit of Hope as a resident rather than a visitor is the ability to use her to comfort those who can’t verbalize what’s bothering them. By living there, she can be part of the daily routine for certain residents, offering a presence that makes the day go smoother.
“We can physically see that difference in them,” Salsbery said.
For the non-verbal, the tactile form of communication that Hope offers — she is a fan of frequent belly rubs, in addition to scratches behind the ears — offers meaning that can’t be put into words. Often, it’s seen in facial expressions or the smile behind their eyes.
With her own room in Hallmar, the dog donated by Kimberlee’s Kennels in Decorah has the freedom to wander the hallways, go on the patio, ride in the bus and go on outings with residents. Her daily routine includes two rounds on both floors of Hallmar and attendance at daily resident activities, where she likes to be part of the action.
Despite the leisurely pace, Hope has known her job from day one.
“The first day I brought her in … she literally directed me into a particular room. It was a resident who is toward the end of life,” said Salsbery. “
Before long, the non-verbal resident opened their eyes at the nudge of Hope, who almost instinctively knew how to approach the resident’s hand. The resident started to giggle.
“Instinctively, she knew she was supposed to go through that doorway,” Salsbery said as her voice broke slightly, recalling the moment. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Even after care providers have done everything they can do, Hope’s emotional connection reaches the depths of the human spirit that medicine can’t heal.
“I’ve been a nurse for over 25 years,” Salsbery said. “This is the greatest thing I’ve done in my career. And I’ve done lots of things.”
As Hallmar carries on with its transformation from an institutional model to a homelike model directed by residents, Hope is just one of the ways that Hallmar becomes home to its residents. With the transition to the new Hallmar Village in 2023, Salsbery said more residents in various levels of care will be able to bring their pets.
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