It was early August 2018, and Susan Matroni was listening to the evening news from her home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when she looked up and saw her mother on the television screen.

“I don’t usually sit down and watch the news early, but for some reason I turned on the TV and I heard them say, Helen’” she says. “Whenever I hear that name I look up because it’s my mother’s name. And I looked at the TV and I saw her.”

Her mother, 87-year-old Helen Marouchoc, has been a memory care resident at Conestoga View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Lancaster for six years. Two years ago Marouchoc stopped recognizing her own daughter. “It was devastating,” says Matroni.

But during that evening news program, Matroni saw a glimpse of the mother she once knew.

Lion Jim Adams and Susan Matroni sit with Matroni’s mother, Helen, as she enjoys time with the newly “adopted” animatronic puppy.

An Idea is Born

In early 2018 Lion Jim Adams was working on a new idea for his Lancaster club. Four years prior his brother-in-law had passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. During his illness, he had found great comfort in his dog, who relatives would bring to visit and sit in his lap at the nursing facility.

Adams wondered if he could bring the same comfort to other dementia patients. However in researching pet therapy, he realized there were some downsides. Real pets required food and veterinary care. And some people were allergic, meaning they wouldn’t be able to benefit.

“The idea was to find something that might be of comparable comfort for folks,” says Adams, “but something hypo-allergenic and requiring no care.” Then he came across the “Joy For All ™” Companion Pets—audio-animatronic dogs and cats that look, feel, and react like real pets.

He thought maybe the Lions could purchase a few for a local nursing home and see if it helped the patients at all. His club was on board.

Lancaster Lion Bill Crabtree approached Conestoga View, the long-term care facility where his father had stayed just two years prior. Situated in an eight-story building, the facility has one floor dedicated solely to memory care patients. They typically have between 55 and 65 residents in that unit.

He spoke with volunteer coordinator Kim Skinner. “I said, ‘we’ve got these pets, would you be willing to look at them,’” says Crabtree.

A Trial Run

At first they were rather hesitant. “They thought these would be cheap plastic animals,” he says. “They thought you’d just push a button or a paw and it would say, ‘arf-arf’ and that would be it.”

Their reactions changed after actually seeing what Crabtree had.

Lion Kim Macsi helps one resident feel the lifelike fur of the new companion.

He carried the pets wrapped in nice boxes into Conestoga View, and invited Skinner, her boss, and the activity lead for the dementia floor to open them up. “They were flabbergasted at how big they were—rather life-size, like a small pup and a regular-sized cat,” he says.

He demonstrated how the animals worked, showed how they reacted to touch or voice through sensors. “If you bark in the dog’s face, it will bark back,” he says. “The cat will purr when you pet it, and if you stroke it enough, it will actually roll over onto its back,” Crabtree says. One of the employees, who continually stroked the cat during their conversation, expressed her concern as to how well the patients would respond to this therapy. Crabtree chuckles, “I waited about five minutes then said, ‘You seem to have made a good friend.’”

Lion Bill Crabtree and Activities Director Kim Skinner Show off three additional pets donated by the Lancaster Lions this past Christmas.

Her hand flew off the pet, not realizing how engaged she’d become with the animal. She realized that if she was reacting this way to the animatronic pet, then she was certain the patients would respond in the same manner.

Conestoga View agreed to do a trial run.

It went well

According to the Conestoga View activity director, Kristin Everhard, the pets have brought a great deal of joy and excitement to the residents, as well as to the staff and patients’ family members.

“The room lights up [when the pets come out] and it’s really neat,” she says. “We have residents who don’t otherwise respond to other things or talk, but when you give them the pet to put in their lap, they start smiling and hugging it and start talking.”

According to Everhard, the biggest joy was seeing the reaction from one resident who had been stuck in a fetal position, wouldn’t speak, and didn’t respond to other stimuli. Once she had the pet, she opened up and actually began talking. “She moved her arms and body—something she hadn’t done in a long time,” says Everhard. “It really makes you tear up.”

The success of the project was covered by their local news station where Matroni was tuned in that late summer evening.

And it was with her mother holding the pet that she saw a glimpse of the woman she once knew.

“I thought ‘Oh, my God,’ and there she was smiling,” says Matroni. “I haven’t seen her smile or respond or react emotionally in at least three years. She was smiling and holding this robotic dog and petting it and kissing its forehead. I just sat there and sobbed.”

Her mother usually stared blankly when Matroni went to visit. “But when she has the animal in her lap it triggers a different part of her brain,” she says. “There’s life in her eyes again. It’s just amazing.”

Amazing especially given they never had any pets in their house before. “That’s the funny thing,” says Matroni. “She didn’t want any animals in her house. I was totally amazed she loved it!”

Smiles Extend Beyond the Patients

Matroni is so grateful for the generosity of the Lancaster Lions that she’s committed to donating a cat to the center.

Crabtree couldn’t be more pleased. The club donated three more animals this Christmas and they’re looking to expand the program, working with the district to reach out to other clubs to see if they’d be interested.

And Skinner is so pleased with the project that she’s considering becoming a Lion herself. “I love volunteering and it’s a great way to make connections.”