This past year, I have spent some time each month volunteering through a partnership with an animal shelter and participating assisted living and retirement homes. And let me tell you, it has been great!
In a small group, we pick up a dog from an animal shelter who is up for adoption and take him/her to an assigned assisted living or retirement home to visit with residents. Not only do residents enjoy petting the dog and telling us stories about pets they’ve owned, but the dogs get to go on a bit of a field trip, which increases their social skills.
Going back to the shelter for the next volunteer shift and seeing that the dog we picked up the last time is no longer there is the best feeling because it means that they have found forever home!
My First Visit
I will never EVER forget my first visit. Spoiler alert!! It ends with me crying.
I have done volunteer work with animals, but never at an assisted living or retirement home. And definitely not with the two combined. So, I had no idea what I was getting into. All I knew was that dogs were involved.
Puppies? Yes, I’ll do whatever you want me to.
I happily walked in to the shelter that morning with someone in my volunteer group and got to pick which dog we would take out for visits 💖💖💖 Picking Moose (not the dog’s real name) was the easy part.
After getting Moose in a crate, I drove him out to our assigned assisted living home for that shift. We went door to door, and to the designated areas that the facility approved.
Meeting the residents was scary my first time…and probably the hardest part. It’s still hard at times. Moose brought instant smiles to most residents, but one resident in particular immediately caught my eye…let’s call her Mrs. Smith (not her real name). Mrs. Smith’s face was just bright and cheerful. She had a big smile on her face and, in my opinion, was yearning to hold Moose.
I immediately grabbed Moose (after he was done making someone else happy, of course) and walked right on over to Mrs. Smith. She asked if she could pet him on her lap. We got a towel on her and placed Moose on her lap who was happy to have so much attention. Mrs. Smith shared stories about her family, pets she’s owned and how happy she was that we visited with Moose because she loves animals. Of course, this broke my heart and my eyes immediately filled with tears. I spent the rest of our conversation attempting to not close my eyes so the tears would dry up. I refuse to believe I’m the only one who does this.
We can’t stay in one area for too long due to timing in other areas we visit in the home, so we had to say our goodbyes to residents, Mrs. Smith included. As we were walking away, Mrs. Smith got up, walked towards us and asked if she could keep playing with Moose. We let her play with Moose for a little bit longer until a nurse came for her – so she turned away dishearteningly and waved at us as she walked away 💔😭💔😭
After we were done visiting, I thought the emotional roller coaster was over. I mean, how many emotions can one person go through in one day?!?! Or, how many tears for that matter??
But then came the task of taking Moose back to the SPCA. Wait, I have to give the dog back? I don’t remember this from training.
So back to the shelter with Moose I go. I put him back in the crate he was originally in. As I closed the gate he stared at me with those big brown eyes and whimpered. I told him I was sorry I couldn’t take him home, but that he’d find a home soon. Yes, I talked to Moose in front of other people and I’m not ashamed. I tried walking away right after that, but he barked as if saying “don’t leave me.” 😢 How could I say no to Moose? I stood there staring at him, as he stared back, wondering who would be lucky enough to have Moose as a friend. Wondering who would be the lucky person that would get to call him their furbaby.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to bring in another family member. Otherwise, trust me, we’d be a happy family of 50, maybe 75 😍
Finally getting the courage to walk away, I turned around and made my way out of the room. Only to have Moose’s yelps and scratching against the gate break my already shattered heart 😭
I somehow managed to not completely lose it at the assisted living home, in front of Moose or as I walked to my car. I even made it all the way to the stop sign that took me to the main road before the tears just rolled down my face. I couldn’t help it. I felt good and bad and sad and…helpless…all at the same time.
I cried my little eyeballs out all the way home to go on with the rest of my day.
On my first visit I didn’t understand how many of the returning volunteers would just gush about some of the residents in specific facilities. Some would even get really upset when they found out a long-time resident had passed. Of course, most of these volunteers had been doing this for years, some even 5+ years. Wow! But still, they’re “just residents” at the places you volunteer at, right? Wrong!
I completely understood the commitment to the residents that returning volunteers gushed about on my second visit to the facility that Mrs. Smith was at. As soon as we got to the area where Mrs. Smith lives in, I grabbed the dog we had for that visit and took him to her. She was just as eager to play with the dog as the first time I saw her. She shared some of the same stories as before, and opened up a little more.
Maybe Mrs. Smith reminds me of my grandmother. Maybe I just connected with her in some weird way. Whatever it was, I was quickly a Mrs. Smith fan.
I would make sure to ALWAYS go to the visits that were at Mrs. Smith’s facility. I didn’t realize how creepy that sounded until I wrote it out 😂 but trust me, it is meant in a nice, non-creepy way.
What I Learned
The most valuable lesson I learned is to appreciate my family a little more. Especially my parents and grandmother. I know that we never really know what can happen to anyone, but as those in my family age the closer they get to moving past this life. And, selfishly, I want to make the most out of the time I have with them.
Listening to some residents’ ask where there families were at and if they were coming to visit was heartbreaking. I don’t understand why families wouldn’t come. Yes, we all get busy with our life and families and other responsibilities, but shouldn’t the people who raised you, the people who brought you into the world, have some importance in your life?
I’m not saying that parents or grandparents are perfect. They’re not. Other than my grandmother, I don’t know anyone who is perfect 😜 Yes, people make mistakes. You and I make mistakes. Those we care about might yell at us, and we’ll get upset, but that’s no reason to stop talking to them. Unless it’s something really traumatic, extreme or TRULY unforgivable, there is no reason to not talk to your parents/grandparents. Hell, my mother definitely wouldn’t have won any Mother of the Year awards when I was a kid. It would be easy to just say that what she did was traumatic, and in some ways it was (let’s save the mommy issues for another post), but I couldn’t do that. No matter how much we may disagree. At the end of the day she’s still my mother. The only one.
I could not live with myself if my parents or grandmother would have to ask a stranger volunteering where their family was at. Could you? I cannot even fathom the thought of losing them and living with the regret of shunning them out of my life and not being grateful to have them just a phone call/drive/flight away. Could you? Would you honestly be able to say you don’t care that a parent/grandparent passed away? And that you don’t care because you were that mad at them and decided to kick them out of your life? I couldn’t.
I witnessed someone who stopped speaking to their mother out of anger. And then their mother passed away and they were filled with regret. I don’t want to be haunted by that regret. I want to appreciate my family and see past their imperfections just like they see past mine now. Not after they’re gone.
My only hope is that I was able to bring some sunshine to some of the residents I visited because they have taught me such a valuable lesson 💕
Join a Pet Therapy Group
I am so excited to share that I get to do this for one more year. Hopefully, I’ll even get to see Mrs. Smith again. I have gotten so much out of this experience and I’m not ready to give it up just yet. So one more year of service for this gal!
Wanna get out there and potentially have the same experience? If you have your own pet who would make a great pet therapy dog, there are several organizations that can help you be a part of an experience like the one I’ve had. The opportunity I had allowed us to take a dog from a shelter, and some organizations will facilitate that, too. Click here to see which pet therapy organization are in your area.