Julia Knight had her dog Lucky, George Lee his cocker spaniel Rusty, and Eileen Jackman raised collies growing up.
Fond memories of their former furry friends replaced whatever hardship these Harbor House residents were dealing with when two 12-week-old puppies visited the facility earlier this year, triggering the recollections.
The program, which takes place bi-weekly at Harbor House, a facility devoted to caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other memory impairments, is made possible by the folks at North Shore Animal League America through its Shelter Pet Outreach Team (SPOT).
Through SPOT, North Shore brings therapy puppies and cats to nursing homes, senior citizen centers and rehabilitation centers like Harbor House.The benefits to these seniors from just a little puppy love are endless, said Shari Leventhal, the director of recreation at Harbor House.
"There's such a difference in their lives," she told ABC News. "We have residents here, they are not speaking, they are not social, they have a lot of mood swings."
But when you put a puppy in their laps, "it turns them into a different person," Leventhal said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, dementia in adults results in changes like memory loss, but also difficulty reasoning, problem-solving and completing complex tasks, which can result in paranoia, agitation and depression. The same can be said for Alzheimer's, including but not limited to forgetting conversations, getting lost in familiar places, and forgetting the names and details about loved ones.
"As soon as you touch a puppy, you start relaxing. They start talking to you, they start having memories of their past, of their dogs when they were growing up and it turns them into a completely different person," Levinthal added. "It's a wonderful thing. It's a blessing. We have seen people who are sad, angry, upset and you put a puppy in their lap, and their disposition changes completely."
Leventhal said that people with cases like dementia hold on to memories of the past, for better or worse.
"I love dogs. ... My father used to take any dog home," said Knight, who lives with dementia. She also joked that "My mother [would say] you get him out of here or I'm out!"
For Jackman, who has Alzheimer’s, she couldn't help sharing stories her pups growing up while holding, kissing and singing to one of the adoptable dogs from North Shore.
"I grew up with [dogs]. My mother raised them, I raised them for a little while," she said. "I had a wonderful memory. I had a collie, a big collie. And I went swimming and I went out too far. I was trying to come in and somehow that dog knew it and came out and grabbed me."
She added, "What do I love about dogs? Because they are so affectionate and so protective and so loving. And they give back a lot when you have them."
The stories are endless and the smiles and laughs from these residents fill the room when the dogs from North Shore are visiting.
But North Shore Animal League America does far more than just helping seniors living with memory-related impairments.
The no-kill shelter has other programs like the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, in which students can work with animals to build "calm, caring, confident kids," and the Seniors for Seniors program, where seniors over the age of 60 can adopt a calm, well-trained senior animal to add love to their life.
"We want to match up as best we can, seniors citizens, 60 years of age or older, with calm animals," said Rosemarie Tombolo, kennel manager at North Shore. "They are set in their ways, they are house-trained or litter-trained and they are just going to be a great companion."
Tombolo said these senior animals might be available if the past owner couldn't afford them anymore or just couldn't fit them into their lifestyle, but one thing is for sure, "These animals deserve a second chance."
"We had a 9- or 10-year-old Lab mix and she couldn't hold it very long, only for two to three hours and then she'd have to go outside," she said. "We matched her up with a senior veteran, who was in his 70s. He just wrote me a letter two years later that pretty much said she saved his life. She gives him a purpose every morning."
"You become their purpose and they become yours," Tombolo said.
For more information, visit www.animalleague.org.
In addition to the program with North Shore, Harbor House also has programs like equine, music and art therapies, in addition to brain games, gardening, baking and trips.
"Harbor House offers a wide range of activities to stimulate our residents socially, emotionally & cognitively," said spokeswoman Effie Sussman.
For more information, visit Harbor House's website.