South Charlotte

Dog is a conversation starter for group with memory loss

Steve Tobin and Marinell Marcus enjoy spending time with Duncan, a therapy dog, and his owner Joan O. Wright at The Ivey.
Steve Tobin and Marinell Marcus enjoy spending time with Duncan, a therapy dog, and his owner Joan O. Wright at The Ivey.

In a small corner room at The Ivey Memory Wellness Day Center in SouthPark, business coach and author Joan O. Wright sits with a group of the facility’s members, who all have memory loss issues.

They all are focused on Duncan, Wright’s Cavalier King Charles spaniel. One member cuddles Duncan and strokes his head, while others comment on how soft his fur is and ask about his age.

They talk about dogs they’ve had, and Wright interjects a story about how when she got married, she told her husband that part of the deal was the dog got to sleep on the bed. That elicits laughter from this dog-loving group.

Wright has found that Duncan makes this kind of free-flowing conversation possible with a group that might otherwise struggle to talk. Engaging people with memory loss in conversation is one way to help them maintain their cognitive level.

“I think Duncan facilitates a higher level of conversation,” said Jen Sexton, program development coordinator at The Ivey, which offers daytime care for people with memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions. “To make that conversation come out, you must have something that stimulates that.

“Duncan makes it very easy.”

Wright’s work with Duncan was inspired by her own father, a successful business executive and community leader who suffered from dementia the last four years of his life.

“The dementia really diminished his cognitive skills,” Wright, 60, said. “When I would go visit him, I would get really anxious about conversation.”

Wright’s parents had a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Oliver, and Wright noticed that when Oliver was around, her father would engage in conversation about the dog. Time seemed to pass much more quickly during their visits.

“The dog would be a safe zone,” Wright said. “We could direct our conversation at, with or about the dog. It gave us a way to connect.”

Wright had another experience with pet therapy when her young adult daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with cancer. Emma greatly enjoyed visits from a therapy dog when she was in the hospital.

When Wright and her husband got Duncan, their second dog, Wright began considering training him as a therapy dog. Duncan passed the training, and Wright began looking for a place to volunteer.

She met a staff member from The Ivey at a Christmas party, and Wright soon interviewed with Sexton to become a regular volunteer with Duncan.

Now, Wright, who works full time, is a regular visitor to The Ivey. She usually schedules her visits in the late afternoon, which fits into her work schedule and is a good time of day for members of The Ivey.

Sexton said that members can get anxious as the time gets closer for them to be picked up. Spending time with Duncan in a relaxed, quiet setting “is a chance for them to finish the day well,” Sexton said.

Wright typically holds two, 30-minute sessions with Duncan. She comes prepared with conversation starters, including a book about dogs that she shows members and toys for Duncan to play with. In October, she brought her laptop and showed members pictures of dogs dressed up for Halloween in her townhouse community.

Depending on the group, the conversation can be hopping. If members are have suffered more significant memory loss, the room may be much quieter.

“Sometimes just not talking is good too,” Wright said. Some members who don’t speak as much still enjoy petting Duncan and being around him.

Marinell Marcus, a member of The Ivey, said that the session with Duncan was relaxing, and she described the dog as soft, gentle and well-mannered.

“It just did something to my heart,” Marcus said. “He was just so lovable.”

For Wright, the sessions at The Ivey are time when she can be fully present with members, listening and “communicating with dignity,” something she said was a struggle at times with her father.

“Those times when I didn’t do that well with him, and I come in here and try to do as good a job as I can,” she said. “I walk out of here and I’m just so grateful. There are members here my age. I have friends who are caregivers.”

As she leaves The Ivey, she stops to let members who didn’t attend the session pet Duncan. The dog often sparks good memories for members about pets they have owned.

“I just love coming here,” Wright said. “Obviously, Duncan does too.”

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: