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Elderly lap up pet visit program

The Prineville Pet Visit Program has the elderly living in long term care facilities happy to see new volunteers and their dogs
Violet picked out her best clothes that morning and had her hair fixed up special so that when Christy Donham brought her dog Kaycee up to see her, she would look real nice. It's always special when someone visits 79-year-old Violet Goodman at Ochoco Care Center, but it particularly special when Kaycee comes along.
   "There are other animals here," Goodman said giving Kaycee an affectionate pat, "...but they don't visit with me as often as I like. I really like to see Kaycee when she comes here because I know she will spend time with me."
   Goodman is only one of many people in Crook County on the receiving end of Prineville's new Pet Visit Program, a program that matches sociable dogs with folks living in assisted living and nursing facilities.
   The evidence that pets can have positive influences on people confined to long term care facilities is well researched. One study conducted in 1992 determined that pets living in nursing homes increase social and verbal interactions when used along with other therapy.
    In addition, dogs in particular are recognized as a preventive and therapeutic measure against everyday stress. And, pets have long been incorporated into the lives of people everywhere as a way to decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation.
   Loneliness is more than a vague feeling _ it actually presents a real stress on the body - very similar to that of pain, injury, grief, fear, fatigue and exhaustion.
   Physiologically speaking loneliness can cause the body to alter the normal production of hormones, which in turn affects healthy physical functioning.
   Stress caused by isolation and loneliness has been implicated in studies as contributing to the origin or severity of diseases such as heart disease, stomach disorders, and innumerable other illnesses.
   Ultimately, besides being an unpleasant side affect of long term care, loneliness can make people more vulnerable to illness _ and keep them from recovering the way they should.
   To help address the plague of loneliness at care facilities in Prineville, the Pet Visit Program was born in January of last year, the brain child of Christy Donham.
   "I had seen on television a program where people were using animals for therapy and I knew right away that I wanted to do something similar in my own community," she explained. "At first I worked with the humane society for a while to coordinate a volunteer. We would come up to the nursing home every Saturday and take our dogs through for visits." After a while, the volunteer was unable to stay with the program and Donham soon became the only volunteer on board, until recently.
   Donham is taking part in the Leadership Prineville project which is a one-year program designed to assist new and emerging leaders in gaining skills and confidence in order to assume increasing levels of volunteer responsibility in the community.
   As part of the training process participants are required to immerse themselves in volunteer based community projects. For Donham, revitalizing the Prineville Pet Visit program was the perfect tool for making that happen. "I thought this would be a great project. I could bring in other volunteers along with their dogs and we could actually hit all of the nursing homes and assisted living facilities in town," she said.
   "My biggest thing is that I want to reach out to people. When I first came up here it really struck me that the people living here can't get out and go visiting. So I wanted to keep coming here and do what I could to help to enrich their lives."
   Adding that person-to-person contact can only go so far, but when you introduce a pet into the relationship it's much more rewarding for everyone concerned. "Animals just break down all of the barriers. It's great therapy."
   Donham indicated that the program is open to volunteers with calm, sociable dogs who enjoy working with the elderly and have a little time to spare. "We are going to start out visiting one of the four facilities in town every Saturday on a rotating basis," she said. "Then, when we get enough volunteers going I would love to be able to expand the program even more."
   Volunteers are required to go through an interview process, show proof of pet vaccinations and keep the dog restrained during visits. For more information about the Prineville Pet Visit Program contact Donham at 447-3611 or by email at cdonham@odf. state.or.us.