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How Cats Enhance a Nursing Home Setting

Catherine Holm

For a short time last year, I worked as a licensed nursing assistant at Coös County Nursing Hospital in northern New Hampshire. Shortly after I started work at this 80-plus-bed facility, I was happy to learn that two resident cats, Colby and Bella, had been adopted into the building and were residing on the second floor. This historic building, which had once been a county farm and then a hospital, had residents on three floors. The cats were limited to the second floor, which made perfect sense, given the nature of resident assignments in this nursing hospital. (The third floor housed residents with advanced dementia. The first floor included a public entryway and access to the outside grounds.)

I’ve lived with cats almost my whole life, so I was interested to see how this adult male and female would integrate into daily life at the nursing home. I expected that the cats would bring happiness, joy, interest, and diversion to at least some of the residents. And I was pleasantly surprised at how well the cats fit into the daily operations of this busy and complex facility. Colby and Bella, two tabbies, behaved beautifully and beneficially after an initial period of adjustment. Residents who liked or loved cats suddenly had a new and happy focus during the course of daily activities in the home.

Activities staff at the nursing hospital told me they’d had success with a nursing home cat in the past. A dog had also been tried, and while many of the residents loved dogs, a dog proved to be too much care for the already busy staff.

Here are some of my observations about integrating cats into nursing home operations:

Allow Adjustment Time

Activities staff at the nursing hospital told me the cats went through an initial period of skittishness and hiding when they first came to the facility. Cat enthusiasts know that this is typical for many cats when adjusting to a new home. Try to keep their surroundings calm during the adjustment period. If possible, limit their territory first and let them get used to the facility slowly. Try to anticipate ways the cats could get in trouble.

Provide a Safe Home Base

The second floor at Coös County Nursing Hospital included a north wing and a south wing. Each wing was a long hallway of rooms that terminated in a perpendicular shorter hallway of rooms and a common area (one per end of each wing). As luck would have it, one cat-loving resident lived primarily in the common area of the second-floor north wing. The cats were set up with their home base in this common area. Colby and Bella brought a lot of joy to this particular resident, who had spent much of their life with cats. Litter boxes and food/water dishes were kept in the north wing common area.

Colby and Bella had mellow, slightly cautious dispositions and stayed close to the common area at first. It probably helped that the aforementioned resident gave them a lot of attention. Even as the cats grew braver and wandered a little further, they seemed to limit their exploration to the north wing of the second floor.

By the time I left the nursing home three months later, the cats were still sticking mainly to the north wing of the second floor. I never saw them try to dash for the stairs (which had protected access with coded door entry) or for the elevators. These cats seemed to be content and happy simply to hang out in the common area, patrol the hallway, or visit residents in their rooms. A multilevel cat condo gave the cats vertical space where they could jump and rest.

Choose Cats Suited to This Important Work

Colby and Bella were gentle cats. In my time at the facility, I never saw them bite, scratch, or be quick to anger. They enjoyed being held and petted.

Activities staff were unsure of the exact age of these cats, but they were not kittens. Given how energetic and curious kittens can be, I suspect that adult cats with calm dispositions are best suited for this role.

Bella and Colby had an endearing way of going into residents’ rooms and sometimes sleeping on their beds or under their beds. Colby was most adventurous in this regard, and Bella eventually grew bolder. Residents who loved or liked cats looked forward to this occurrence and some of them encouraged it. Some of the residents even seemed to get a little competitive about it, clearly wanting the cats to choose them.

The connection between the cats and these residents brought diversion, interest, and happiness to these people’s days. These are people whose lives have changed drastically. They’ve had to leave their familiar homes, they may be dealing with mental and physical decline, their social interaction in the course of a day may change dramatically. Their lives, in many ways, have become smaller. Animal companions offer a compassionate window into a bigger and gentler world for these people.

Clearly Assign Responsibilities

Nursing homes seem to be chronically understaffed, or on the verge of it. Make sure it’s understood who is providing care for the cats (feeding, litterboxes, vetting, shots, claw trimming, etc.). At this facility, it was clearly understood that activities staff were providing main care for the cats. Nonetheless, there were times when I (and possibly other staff) would jump in and fill a water bowl or clean a cat box if needed.

Ensure Safety of Cats and Residents

While you want to make sure that cats don’t harm residents (by choosing cats with a good disposition), you also want to make sure that residents don’t harm cats. Keep cats away from potentially violent residents, or residents who are unaware of their actions or their strength.

The companionship that animals bring is a welcome addition to any life, and certainly daily life for many in a nursing facility.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Catherine Holm is the award-winning author of cat fantasy fiction and cat-themed memoir. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and six well-loved cats. Learn about her work at www.catherineholm.com.


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