I know, the title of this post sounds like the beginning of cheesy joke. It’s not and in this case, it’s not about Sam either (well, for the most part). What I am referring to is the book, A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home by Sue Halpern (Riverhead Books, 2013) which was a gift from my dear friend, Cheryl. She saw a review of it and thought of Sam and I since she knows how passionate I am about pet therapy (and dogs in general). I’ve known Cheryl since our days when we worked together for a global healthcare company some 12 years or so ago. Cheryl is the kind of friend you can only dream about. Funny, smart, beautiful, loyal and wise beyond her years, she’s the kind of person you’d hate if she weren’t such a terrific human being. She reads people and situations like no one I’ve ever known and every time she shares one of her patented Cheryl-isms, I think “oh my god, you’re my hero.” Her observations have been spot on over the past years I’ve known her and she was definitely right about this book once again proving what a terrific friend she is and for which I’m very grateful. Love ya, Cheryl! Thanks again for the book but more importantly thank you for your ongoing gift of friendship. I am truly blessed.
A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home is a story about Halpern and her Labradoodle facing life at a cross-road. Pransky was her under-occupied and bored older pet and Halpern herself was suffering from soon to be empty-nest syndrome. Upon reflection, she decides the two of them will become certified as a therapy team and volunteer at a Vermont nursing home. Their adventures proved insightful beyond expectation and they wander around the infinite possibilities where love of life and openness shine. This story deals with self-discovery of one woman’s quest to invest in others as a way to fill her day. The book is keen and insightful without being sappy for its description of the infirm and elderly. It doesn’t gloss over thoughts on aging and companionship. Soon Halpern learns to stretch her comfort zone by discovering death isn’t something to be feared through acceptance with dignity from an enthusiastic dog with a distinctive face who was happy to spend time with people who could use some love and affection. An even bigger lesson that Halpern discovered was how simple acts of kindness transform not only the recipient but also to the giver.
This book impacted me in a number of ways. Oh sure, I thought of our shared experiences. We have engaging, clever pets who force us out of our comfort zones and we both visit patients, visitors and staff though Sam and I aren’t afforded the luxury of developing ongoing relationships with patients. Initially I was somewhat envious until I realized Halpern and Pransky watched their patients slowly decline over time and in the case of dementia, witness a slow dreadful death I wouldn’t wish on anyone. When older people die, the general consensus is “this is the circle of life, an inevitability.” When someone passes who was “simply too young to die,” we view it as tragic, like an icy wind that stays with us. Acknowledging the difficulty of returning to the room of a young resident who had passed, Halpern felt disloyal. Many of their visits were to patients suffering from dementia and when I see those kinds of patients, my thought is “but for the grace of God, there go I.” It’s humbling to view an eventual outcome many of us fear. Not the mere idea of death mind you, but how we get there. Living life is truly all about the journey.
Sam and I see patients once and the majority of them heal and go back to resume their regular lives. There is always someone new in their rooms, and for Sam and I, it’s like Day 1 all over again. We’re granted a fresh new slate every time we arrive. I’m not sure I could handle repeat visits especially when I see patients at hospice who are left completely alone. It would leave me feeling too sad. I cannot imagine leaving life with no one to see you on the path to wherever that next chapter goes and more than once the thought has left me heartbroken.
One thing I came away with after reading this book, was that both Pransky and Sam make no judgment on the people they see. They love unconditionally for that exact reason and make it look so effortlessly. They have love to spare. Goodness is theirs to dispense yet the distance between giving and receiving is sometimes murky. And although we share memories, these remarkable creatures on the opposite side of the proverbial coin known as pet therapy, show us that living in the present is the most valuable lesson we can learn.
Bottom line…I highly recommend this book. It’s a quick and easy read but it will make you think about mortality and whether you are misusing your gift of life. Read it. You’ll be glad you did and you’ll smile at the thought of a goofy dog walking down a hospital corridor ready to dispense love and a tail wag to any and everyone he comes in contact with along the way.
Live, love, bark! <3