The other day I visited a nursing home called “Sakura no Yamashina” for a music therapy session. It’s located in a quiet part of Yokosuka city in Kanagawa prefecture surrounded by the beautiful bay and endless hills. From outside this small nursing home looked nothing unusual, but as soon as I walked in the back door I saw something I had never seen before -two dogs with a backpack walking down the hallway.
I asked a member of the staff what the dogs were doing. She said,
“Their job is to get the morning newspaper and deliver it to our residents.”
She smiled and added, “But they can’t do it by themselves yet.”
These dogs are among the 6 dogs that live at Sakura no Yamashina; some have been rescued from the shelters, while others have come to live with their owners.
The facility has a dog unit for the residents who want to live with dogs and a cat unit for those who want to live with cats. They also have floors with no animal for the residents who prefer that.
I found my new patient, Mr. I. in the cat unit. In his 80’s, he was a small statue of a man, suffering from dementia. His love for cats was apparent from his room – a cat printed blanket, a cat printed cushion, and even a picture of himself with a cat.
When I began singing Japanese folk songs he started to cry and said that they reminded him of “good times” from his childhood. And then he sang songs with me. Even though his short term memory was not good due to his dementia, he was able to recall the lyrics of the old tunes. During the session I learned that he liked music very much, and that his cat on the picture had died some time ago.
When I was working at hospice in the U.S for over 10 years, I visited countless nursing homes. Since returning home to Japan 2 years ago, I’ve visited several of them here. It is not uncommon to have a dog or two living in a nursing home in either country, but I’ve never seen one that has so many animals like Sakura no Yamashina or one that allows their residents to move in with their pets.
Over the years I’ve seen many patients who are concerned about what would happen to their pets when they move to a facility or when they die. Since pets are members of their family, this is an important issue for many people.
In Sakura no Yamashina animals continue to live there even after their owners’ death, so the residents have peace of mind knowing their pets will be taken care of.
After the music therapy session I took Mr. I out to the living room area where several cats were roaming around. One of them jumped onto his lap, which gave him a big smile. He petted the orange cat gently as it closed it’s eyes.
Being with cats has always been a part of Mr. I’s life, and so has listening to music. Creating an environment where “normal things” take place is important for facilities, because it is this sense of normalcy that can increase quality of life in people.
“This is a kind of a nursing home I ‘d like to live when I get old,” I thought to myself, as I said good bye to Mr. I and the cats.