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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


May 5, 2017  RSS feed
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Menorah Manor’s new cat therapy is ‘purr’fect: No litterbox needed


Orla Pearson, a dementia resident at Menorah Manor in St. Petersburg, finds comfort from a robotic therapy cat. Orla Pearson, a dementia resident at Menorah Manor in St. Petersburg, finds comfort from a robotic therapy cat. Clair Pearson walked into the dining room of Menorah Manor and saw his wife, Orla, with a cat in her arms. She looked directly at the cat, petting and talking to it.

He said he had tried a lot of different things to engage his wife, who has dementia, but none of them worked. He was so thrilled to see her reaction that he went out and bought his wife a cat of her own.

He didn’t need to visit a local animal shelter or a pet store. Instead, he contacted a toy company. Companion Pets, a product line made by Hasbro, Inc., mimics the feel and some of the actions of its real-life feline counterparts.

Menorah Manor is providing this new therapy option for its Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Residents of the Marion and Bernard L. Samson Nursing Center and Inn on the Pond’s Inspirations program are spending quality time with these unusual furry friends as part of their treatment plan.

Mary Lambert interacts with one of the robotic cats as Gwen Kaldenberg, director of the Bresler Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Disorders program, looks on. Mary Lambert interacts with one of the robotic cats as Gwen Kaldenberg, director of the Bresler Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Disorders program, looks on. An anonymous donor contributed 10 robotic therapy cats to the nursing center.

Although therapy animals have long been encouraged, these lifelike figures replicate pet behavior without any of the mess or feeding requirements. The company also makes robotic therapy dogs.

Before getting the robotic cat, Orla hadn’t responded to hardly anything, said Pearson. “The first day she had that cat, she wouldn’t let it go. She’s had her own for about a month, and its made such a difference.”

Built-in sensors allow the cat to respond to being scratched on the head by turning toward the hand doing the scratching. It can react to petting by purring, falling asleep or even rolling on its back.

“I kept one in my office for about a week,” said Judy Ludin, chief development and community relations manager at Menorah Manor. “When I walked into my office, it would sense me and meow. I honestly grew attached to it.”

Gwen Kaldenberg, director of the Bresler Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Disorders program, has worked at Menorah Manor for 21 years. She said the therapy cats have been a great source of comfort for the residents in the program since it started about two months ago.

“It’s been one of the best things that has ever happened for these residents,” she said. “Just seeing how the residents responded, I was crying, just amazed.”

One of those residents is Mary Lambert. She sat at a card table, talking to and petting one of the therapy cats. She decided to name the cat Sheamus, after her older brother. As she talked to the tabby, it rolled over on its back and Lambert laughed.

“We had a cat years ago,” she said. “He would run back and forth across my shoulders. It bit me. You don’t get tired of these cats.”

Lambert has been a lifelong animal lover and had volunteered at animal shelters throughout her life. Kaldenberg said Lambert knew the cats weren’t real, but she wished they were.

Another resident with memory issues, Crystal Coester, had become distraught when she remembered her parents had passed away. The staff brought her one of the cats, and Coester’s tears stopped immediately, Kaldenberg said. When Coester’s daughter saw how well she responded to the cat, she decided to get Coester one of the robotic dogs. Coester, who had always had dogs growing up, named him Oscar after one of the dogs she’d had.

Pearson agreed that the cats had a calming affect on the residents and his wife Orla specifically.

“When she’s holding it, she’s more relaxed,” said Pearson. “She calms down, she smiles at me. That first day, I couldn’t believe it. We had a poodle; she didn’t even like cats.”

While Pearson spoke, his wife held one of the cats in her arms and cradled it like a baby.

The cats have made an impact in other rehabilitation centers around the country. Last December, the New York Times wrote about a Jewish assisted living center in the Bronx that gave the therapy cats to its Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. According to the article, the cats were successfully used as an alternative to sedatives for agitated patients.

Hasbro marketed Companion Pets specifically to be used as an aid for senior citizens. While initially its consumer base was made up of those buying the animals for aging family members, the company has seen an increase in direct-to-senior living facility sales.

It has sold its product to dozens of senior communities around the U.S. and is working with a core group to expand the product line, said Hasbro Global Communications Manager Jen DeAngelis.

“Hasbro believes that the power of play can bring joy to people at all stages of life,“ DeAngelis told the Jewish Press.

According to DeAngelis, since the product’s release in November of 2015, the company has sold “tens of thousands” of cats. Hasbro’s online retail price is $99 for cats and $120 for robotic dogs.

Menorah Manor residents have been interacting with the cats for a little over six weeks, and the reaction has been incredible, said Ludin.

“When they first came in, I took one and walked around the building with it, just to see what the response would be and everyone was just mesmerized,” she said. “There’s nothing scary about them. When I walked around with one, it was just the most positive feedback. I can’t even explain.”

Based on the response so far, Ludin hopes that more therapy cats will make their way to the program, which currently has about 60 residents. For residents like Lambert, they seem to make all the difference.

“I love ya,” Lambert told the cat as she scratched its nose. “Do you think it understands me?” “I think it does,” answered Kaldenberg.

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