Alzheimer's Patients 'Hoppy' to See Theo the Baby Kangaroo
That is only one of the many charms of Theodore, a cuddly red kangaroo who serves as an animal therapist at the Silverado Senior Living community in Salt Lake City, Utah. Just 9 months old and 15 lbs., with soft fur and an impish streak, young Theo (pictured here with resident Mary Sims) is a major star at Silverado, a home for seniors suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. There, "his only job is to be loved," says Noralyn Snow, the facility's administrator, who also cares for Theo in her suburban home when he's not on the clock.
"Like all baby kangaroos, he's very affectionate. He likes to be held and hugged," she tells PEOPLEPets.com. "I can't tell you how much people love him."
Most patients arrive at Silverado "having lost so much," explains Snow. "They lost their health, their independence, their homes. They've lost control of their lives. Many of them no longer have a reason to keep going." That's where Theo comes in. Outfitted in a diaper with a hole cut out for his tail (cleaning up 'roo poo is a hassle), Theo loves being wrapped in a blanket and snuggled like a baby, and patients are only too happy to oblige.
"Baby kangaroos are used to being in their mother's pouch, so they really like being coddled," says Snow. "They're not wild or disruptive at all. Theo will come up and lick you on the end of your nose." Over and over, Snow sees the magical effect Theo has on elderly residents, some of whom have all but stopped talking or interacting. "When they have Theo in their laps, they come right back to the world," she says. "They pet him and talk to him and feed him. Theo gives them a reason to re-engage."
Animal-assisted therapy has been around for years, but the folks at Silverado–which has 20 senior living communities in four states–have made animals a central part of their approach to patient care. "Having a pet around will reduce blood pressure, depression and anxiety in virtually anyone, and we've seen a reduction in the use of psychotropic medications in our patients because of our animals," says Loren B. Shook, co-founder of the Silverado chain. "Theo, for instance, is a real charmer. He comes right up to you and loves being fawned over. He gives people a sense of wonder about life again."
All told, Silverado houses several hundred pets–mostly dogs, cats and birds–and spends some $750,000 a year taking care of them. The dividends go beyond happier, more alert patients–the animals also make it easier for grandchildren to come visit their ailing grandparents. "Lots of times kids are scared or confused by what is happening to their relatives," says Shook, a lifelong animal-lover who takes his black Lab Asher along to board meetings. "Seeing a dog or a cat or Theo there makes the whole family more comfortable."
The Salt Lake Silverado is home to a bloodhound, a basset, a shih tzu, six cats, a few birds and four or five pets brought in by patients–but Theo is the main attraction. He is the seventh kangaroo to work there; each one stays until they're about 18 months old, after which "their hormones kick in and they become like naughty teenagers," says Snow. "They hop around a lot more and don't like to be around people as much." Snow, who grew up in Provo surrounded by pet seagulls and squirrels and raccoons, gets the kangaroos from a friend who breeds them, then returns them to his roomy preserve when it's time to bring in a new baby.
Theo is bottle-fed every four hours (he slurps Puppy Milk Replacer and snacks on strawberries), and at night he curls up on Snow's lap (they like watching American Idol together). One patient at Silverado is so smitten with Theo, he waits outside Snow's office every day until the little guy hops out. Another patient with dementia refused to leave his room until, one day, he caught a glimpse of Theo hopping down the hallway and came out to follow him; after that, the patient became an engaged member of the community.
The Silverado staff is so confident in the ability of Theo and other animals to help patients that "we take on some of the hardest cases that others have given up on," says Snow. "We take in seniors who are really far gone or dying, and many times they will get better once they're here."
Not long ago, a patient arrived at Silverado for hospice – brought there, essentially, to die. But because of her interaction with the animals, says Snow, the woman's cognitive abilities and general demeanor improved so much she was able to leave Silverado and rejoin the world. "These are patients who are resistant to other people, who are confused and all alone," says Snow. "And then Theo shows up and changes their lives."
In fact, there hasn't been a single downside to having Theo prance around the Silverado courtyard with patients–except, that is, for all the 'roo poo. "Lots of people love feeding Theo his bottle," says Snow. "But when it comes time to change his diaper, I'm definitely the Mom."
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