BAR HARBOR, Maine — There’s a new resident in the Alzheimer’s unit of a local assisted living facility that is having a profound effect on his neighbors.
Alzheimer’s disease, which impairs cognitive functioning, can disrupt routines and relationships that have provided people and families with stability for decades.
At Birch Bay Village, however, the new member of the Alzheimer’s wing has had a positive effect on the people around him. His name is Figaro, and he is a 9-year old black cat.
“For some of them, he is like a ray of sunshine” Debbie Ireland, a certified nurse’s aide at the facility, said Sunday. “He goes into the [residents’] rooms to see what’s going on. He does his rounds.”
According to Andy Kropff, director of facilities for Birch Bay Village, staff at the assisted living center were looking a few months ago for a cat to adopt for the residents of the Alzheimer’s wing when a woman contacted them. She was moving to the South for a new job, she said, and could not take all of her pets with her. She asked if they could use a gentle, docile cat.
“We were all in agreement that we wanted a cat,” Kropff said Sunday. “So we made a match.”
Kropff said that at many health facilities where residents have diminished mental functions there are programs that bring in animals to interact with people. At Birch Bay Village, he said, some residents have their own pets while in the Alzheimer’s wing, and there have been occasional visits from dogs and, in the adjacent garden, there are wild rabbits.
Figaro, who is declawed and “very docile,” according to the staff, is the first animal to take up residence in the Alzheimer’s wing.
“There have been tons of studies done that show it’s a great place to have an animal,” Kropff said. “It doesn’t matter what name [Figaro] is called [by the residents]. He brings out memories for them that might not otherwise be facilitated.”
Eleven residents live in the center’s Alzheimer’s unit. The wing has a 16-resident capacity.
Out of privacy concerns, administrators at Birch Bay Village asked that residents of the Alzheimer’s wing not be identified in this article.
One man who lives there spoke up when told that an article about Figaro was going to be in the newspaper. The man had been watching old clips of “The Dean Martin Show” on television before joining the conversation.
“I like the cat very much,” he said, adding that he generally is more of a dog person. “He’s kind. He’s quiet. He’s a nice cat. He fits in very well around here.”
Figaro has some toys and usually gets shut in a side room while residents eat in the wing’s dining area, according to staff. He eats his own food in front of the hearth and gets to spend time out in the garden, where his lack of claws prevents him from climbing the wooden fence and wandering off. He spends much of his time curled up on a cushion on a hallway chair.
Maegan Lillie, another CNA, said she sometimes sees Figaro’s head peeking out from the covers when she checks on sleeping residents.
“They like him as a little cuddle buddy,” Lillie said.
Ireland said that some residents have families, but not all of them do. Having Figaro around gives them comfort and a sense of home that they otherwise might not have.
“The residents are wonderful with him,” she said. “It gives them something to focus on besides their own problems. I think a lot of facilities should get a program like this. It makes a big difference.”