Saturday, December 26, 2015

Remember For Me

Last week, Yehuda called us. He was concerned about his dog, Polly, a smooth collie who was now over fourteen years old.  She was having discomfort getting up and walking, and preferred to sleep in her corner, and he asked if we could come to visit, see her, and give him advice.

What was special about this is that Polly was the very first dog trained as an Alzheimer’s Aid Dog, and Yehuda was the very first Alzheimer’s patient to receive one.

People suffering from Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain damage diseases suffer loss of cognitive skills, including memory, judgment, and orientation in time, people and places.  The loss of orientation hinders their ability to get home safely, so that any time they leave home, they run the risk of getting lost.  The ability to get home becomes a major survival issue for these people.

People with Dementia and other degenerative brain diseases also feel terrible loneliness, frustration, anger and helplessness. Against their will, they are prisoners in their own homes and are dependent on others to get out.

The idea of this project was that with the help of a specially trained dog, the patient could get home by simply giving the dog the command to take them home.  This returns their freedom of movement and makes it possible for them to leave their homes without requiring the help of family members.

The dog has not only been trained to bring her owner home, but also to bring him home safely, avoiding physical obstacles such as holes, dangerous curbs, parked cars, traffic. The dog also helps give the patient stability in standing and walking – many Alzheimer’s sufferers are prone to falls.  The patient may become confused as a result of the disease, or become anxious because he is not sure how to get home, and is capable of forgetting all his pedestrian skills, so the dog is his “guardian”.

Yehuda suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s, which began when he was in his early 60’s.  He was a highly educated and very respected professional, a talented writer and translator, fluent in several languages, and involved in very important and influential work.  The diagnosis was extremely hard for him to accept. Especially during the first stages of the disease, Yehuda felt terribly lonely and anxious. He felt isolated from colleagues and also from his family.  He didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning or try to carry on a normal life style. He even resented the help of family members.

Yehuda had never been a “dog person”, and the idea of having a companion dog was very strange to him.  But the bond between him and Polly developed very quickly and very deeply.

It was necessary for Yehuda to care for his dog’s needs, so he had to get out of bed in the morning – Polly would also come to the bed and nudge and encourage him until he got up.  Caring for her and walking her helped him maintain a normal way of life, and the physical exercise of walking with her and playing with her improved his own physical fitness and health.  He also was no longer afraid of getting lost and not being able to get home – he knew that Polly would always bring him to safety.

Walking the dog also promoted contact between him and other people in his environment.  People showed an interest and curiosity about the dog with the special harness.  They begin talking more with Yehuda and interacting with him, which helped to take him out of the circle of boredom and loneliness.  In this scenario, the dog acts as an icebreaker or social integrator.

Alzheimer’s Aid Dogs become full time companions.  Polly was attentive and focused her attention on the Yehuda, his needs and his mental/physical condition at all times. When Yehuda was depressed and did not want to get out of bed, Polly played with him, pulled the blankets away from him, brought him her toys, and would not stop until Yehuda responded. Polly remained with Yehuda at night when he could not sleep.  She stayed with him while his family was engaged in other activities. Yehuda reported that he did not feel the need to phone his family as much as before, and when he was bored, he went out with the dog.  Polly was also specially trained to react to crisis situations by barking to alert help or to press a special emergency button. 

Yehuda himself said, “The dog has given me a quality of life by releasing me from the prison walls of my own home. This is the best thing that has ever happened to me…A person has no worth or existence if he doesn't belong to a social community. A person without a companion is empty. The most important aspect of this project is not just getting me safely home which is very important, but to allow me to be socially active. To go with Polly to friends and acquaintances… now there is no fear whether I'll be back home safe or not. With Polly there is no pressure."

We have been involved with Yehuda and Polly from the start of the project. We felt the tremendous bond that grew between them, and the total devotion of Polly and her desire to do everything she could for Yehuda.  She learned many things that were not part of her training, but part of her day to day life with her partner.

There were many and varied stages in Yehuda’s condition. There were times when he was affected quite severely and was almost unable to communicate, and there were times when he was very lucid and clear, and was able to write and work at his translations, and participate in family life.  Polly was always at his side.

It had been about a year since our last visit to Yehuda and Polly.  He had been suffering from additional physical disabilities, and we were worried that his condition might be deteriorating.  As we drove up to his house and were greeted by his wife, we were not sure what the situation would be.

We spent several hours with Yehuda and Polly, and I still find it almost impossible to describe my feelings.  For several hours, we carried on a conversation with an articulate, talented, intellectual man, who was able to remember his past and tell us many stories about his life, discuss current affairs, and behave in a completely normal manner.  Anyone meeting him would never believe that he was an Alzheimer’s sufferer.  His physical condition was also improved – he was consciously working on methods to improve his body function, and was succeeding. He was fully aware of his condition, and told us that at times he would “lose” himself, but his determination not to give up on his life brought him back from these darker periods.

Yehuda is a unique and special person, who was not willing to give in to his disease, and fought with all his strength to hold on to his abilities, and he has succeeded to an unbelievable extent.  But he attributes a great deal of his success to Polly – she would not let him sink into despair and apathy, she and her devotion kept him going.  His doctors agree.

But now Yehuda’s concerns were for his beloved Polly.  He was totally aware of the situation, but he had been a fighter all his life, and he was ready now to do whatever he could for his dear friend.  We could see that she was indeed suffering from old age. Although she still desired to stay at Yehuda’s side and to continue to watch over him, her body was failing her in many ways.  There was little to do except to keep her as comfortable as possible.  We and Yehuda knew what was inevitable.

A few days later, Polly fell into her last sleep, as always at Yehuda’s side.

She will be remembered as the first dog to prove that this project was possible and valuable.  There are others following in her footsteps, helping other Alzheimer’s patients and their families.  Yehuda will not have another dog, but we believe that Polly will always remain in his memory.


  1. This is a wonderful article Myrna. I can totally relate to this as I have been the caregiver, along with my Smooth Collie, for my Mom who also has Dementia/Alzheimer's for 5 years. My Mom is so in love with and bonded to my Smoothie but my Mom is now requiring care that I can't properly provide for her so in the future she will be in long term care and not with my Smoothie. This is the part that causes me the greatest grief - separating the two of them as they will terribly miss each other. Luckily, although it's not a full time Smoothie presence, I will be able to take my Smoothie to visit my Mom.

    1. Yes, it is so difficult...we see this bond so often, I work with a wonderful person who runs a home for dementia and alzheimer's sufferers, and she has dogs there and other small animals as well, they are a great comfort to the patients.

  2. Thank you for posting this. It is a lovely story. A good friend of mine, from high school, has early onset dementia. It is so sad to see her. I wish she could have a dog like Polly- I am sure it would help her, even in a group home situation.