A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home
Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher
A layabout mutt turned therapy dog leads her owner to a new understanding of the good life.
Ee’ve been waiting for you,” the receptionist said, leaning over her desk, talking directly to my dog. “Welcome.” It was ten a.m. on our first day at County, and it was pretty clear that no one was waiting for me. I was just the person holding the leash. In New York City, Times Square vendors sold something called “the invisible dog”—a stiff lead attached to a harness collar that could be “walked” down the street. People would notice the dog walker strolling purposefully along the sidewalk, then look down to check out the dog, and there would be none. That was Pranny and me, only reversed: we were a leash, a dog, and her imperceptible walker.
And I was relieved. The invisibility cloak that seemed to fall around my shoulders when Pransky and I crossed the threshold into County that September morning was also hiding my self-consciousness. What was I supposed to do, really? Nothing in my life had prepared me for the simple act of visiting strangers in a place like this—not the nursing home orientation video, not therapy dog training, and not, certainly, all my years in school. I was deficient in prudence, what the moral philosophers describe as “practical wisdom,” the basic knowledge of what to do and how to be. There was the unsettling intimacy of visiting people in their beds, and there was the disparity between my situation and theirs: between sickness and health, between their age and mine, between confinement and freedom, between no dog and dog. And speaking of that dog, with a wag of her tail and a gentle tug on the leash, she was aiming us toward a man in the corridor beckoning to her with both his hands. Diving into the deep end, I followed.
Joe was sitting in his wheelchair. A camo-print baseball hat covered his bald head, and he wore a baggy gray sweatshirt that fell loosely to his lap, which was where, for all intents and purposes, his body ended, too. The man was all torso; his legs had been amputated at mid-thigh. I didn’t want to stare, so I focused on his face, which was oriented dogward and had been hijacked by a big, goofy smile.
“Come here,” he said to Pransky, with a slight slur in his voice. She drew close. Joe reached over and vigorously rubbed a spot on her head between her ears, and as he did, Pransky stuck her nose in his lap and avidly inspected his stumps, which were wrapped in flesh- colored elastic bandages. Mortified, I quickly assessed the options: pull her away and maybe make the situation worse, or do nothing and maybe make the situation worse. It was lose-lose all around. I had no idea what to do. Aristotle had convinced me that, since practical wisdom was gained by experience, the inexperienced were out of luck.
“One can learn the principles of action, but applying them in the real world, in situations one could not have foreseen, requires experience of the world,” I read in a discussion of his Nichomachean Ethics. “For example, if one knows that one should be honest, one might act in certain situations in ways that cause pain and offense; knowing how to apply honesty in balance with other considerations and in specific contexts requires experience.” (Translation: when your best friend, who has put on a few pounds, asks if she looks fat, say no.) Was Aristotle advocating lying? Well, sort of. What he really seemed to be saying was that prudence is never black or white, and it is the wise person who figures out how to make the perfect shade of gray. Even so, in this case, the case of my sweet dog rooting around Joe’s truncated limbs, there was only black or white: either I called her off or I didn’t. It definitely qualified as an unforeseen situation.
“Nice dog,” Joe said, beaming at Pransky. And with those words, a spell was broken. If he didn’t care that she was seriously interested in his bandages, and if he was not embarrassed, why should I be embarrassed? Empathy requires us to imagine ourselves as someone else, but that’s not what I was doing. Instead, I was putting my intact self in that wheelchair, which was not the same thing.
“How old?” Joe asked.
“Seven,” I said.
He laughed—I wasn’t sure why—then looked crestfallen.
“I had a dog,” he said. “Lab. Hit by a car.”
I was getting used to his telegraphic way of speaking in quick, simple bursts.
“Did you take him hunting?” I asked. This, I realized, was presumptuous and had to do with his hat, but as long as I was filling in the blanks in his sentences, it seemed— yes, prudent—to fill in some history, too.
“Yes,” Joe said sweetly, his smile restored. “He was a good hunter.”
This was going well, I thought—as well as any blind date with a man of few words. Thanks to Pransky, my natural reticence had melted away and had been replaced by a strange and unexpected gregariousness. Joe might be missing half his body, Pransky might be behaving crassly, I might be uncomfortable and out of my depth, but none of that seemed to matter much. Life was good. I had my hand on Pransky’s back and Joe had his hand on her head and the three of us were getting serious hits of oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, as a consequence. In a 1999 study reported in the journal Psychiatry, researchers from the University of California–San Francisco found that elevated levels of oxytocin correlated with better interpersonal relationships. Check. Later studies, from Sweden and Japan, showed how oxytocin levels went up not only by petting a dog but by gazing at one as well, and as oxytocin increased, anxiety levels fell. Check. And we weren’t the only ones love- drunk here. As random members of the staff passed down the hall and caught sight of the dog, they would tack in our direction, sail over, and touch Pransky as if she were a talisman.
“I need therapy, too,” one of the nurses said. Though she might have been one of the housekeepers, or a medical technician, or a physical therapist, or from the kitchen staff. I couldn’t tell the difference, and neither could Pransky, and the point was, it didn’t matter.
“Hey, you’re here,” Janie said, coming up behind us. “I see you’ve met Joe. And don’t you look adorable today!” she said, not to me. And Pransky did look adorable. She was wearing her crisp new red therapy dog bandanna and a yellow dog tag that declared “I am a therapy dog” with a phone number on the back in case something unfortunate were to happen. Week after week, this would be her uniform. “Time to get dressed for work!” I’d say, and she’d come trotting over and I’d slip off her worn purple everyday collar and snap on the brilliant red collar from which her official County Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center picture ID, her TDI picture ID, and the yellow “I’m a therapy dog” tag all hung. Then I’d tie the bandanna around her neck, smooth it out, and the transformation would be complete. Was it my imagination, or once she was dressed for work did she stand taller, sit straighter, and look, well, expert?
As Janie walked with us down the hall, past the rooms of people who would be in the nursing home only for short stays while their knee replacements healed or pneumonia waned, I wanted to ask her about Joe or, more specifically, about Joe’s legs. Diabetes seemed the most likely explanation, and I was curious and wanted to know if I was right. But there was no subtle way to ask, and there wasn’t a good reason for me to know, so with Janie’s confidentiality warning in mind, I didn’t ask then, and I never asked later—not about Joe, not about anyone. I’d visit people, I’d talk to them month after month, and I might not know if they had some kind of cancer or had had a stroke or if their general decline was just a product of getting older. Sometimes they’d tell me. They’d say, “You know, I’m one year and eight months shy of one hundred, so I don’t remember so well,” or, “My niece brought me back from Florida after my husband died and I had this stroke,” or, “The doctor says I have liver disease, not liver cancer.” But for the most part I was in the dark about why they had ended up in County, and it took a while for me to be okay with that. Years before, I’d worked in and around prisons, where it was never okay to ask someone why they were incarcerated. It was simpler that way. Even so, the mind makes up stories according to familiar templates, so the young man I was interviewing one day, who was my age exactly, who had gone to prison the same year I’d gone to college, who said he missed riding his bike through the Pennsylvania countryside, who sometimes turned on the faucet in his cell and closed his eyes and imagined he was lying beside a rushing stream—he, I was certain, had done something stupid and impulsive and teenaged, like steal a car. And believing he’d done something stupid and impulsive like steal a car made it easier to talk to him and relate to him and feel for him, cooped up in a place corralled by razor wire. It didn’t occur to me that you didn’t get locked up in a place corralled by razor wire for stealing a car—not until he mentioned his friend, the one he’d fought with and killed. I’d liked my story better.
We rounded the corner and Janie sent us in to visit with a woman named Lila Green with the words, “She loves dogs.” The sentiment would have been obvious even without the introduction. Lila’s bed was covered by a blanket with the image of a larger-than-life collie woven into it, there was a collie dog stuffed animal on her pillow, and pictures of collies torn from magazines were taped to her cupboard next to snapshots of babies and children in soccer and Little League uniforms.
“Come in, come in,” she welcomed us. “Have a seat.” Lila, in a pink velour jogging suit and fluffy pink slippers, was a robust woman with a cumulus cloud of hair topping a worn, rosy-cheeked face. She was sitting in an overstuffed easy chair, the only chair in the room, so I perched on the edge of the footboard, even as I vaguely remembered a rule about not sitting on a resident’s bed. Was it because of the germs on the bed, I wondered, or the germs I’d be leaving on the bed, or was it because this was a resident’s home, and that position was overly familiar?
“Sit, sit,” Lila said. Pransky sat.
“What a good dog,” Lila said. “I had a dog once.”
“Skilled in the art of combining vivid in-the-moment storytelling with thoughtful analysis… [Halpern is] a deeply ethical thinker with a bright sense of humor… A profoundly affecting and edifying chronicle brimming with practical wisdom.” –Booklist (starred review)
“Halpern’s love of life and openness to its infinite possibilities shine through in this powerful and engaging account… Time and again, anecdotes bolster her contention that in places where ‘life is in the balance,’ it is possible to get to the essentials about human nature.” –Publishers Weekly
“Witty and compassionate… readers will take away the knowledge that we are each given one life and we had best not squander how we live it.” –Kirkus
“A therapy dog opens many doors of deeper human communication. All people interesting in improving the lives of others should read this insightful book.” –Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human
“Affectionate and deeply affecting, written with a light hand and a keen eye, this is a wonderful story of great things—namely, love, life, human kindness, and dogs.” –Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend and The Orchid Thief
“A joyous and moving account of how seemingly small gifts of kindness can make a profound difference. And not to the recipient alone.” –Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March, People of the Book, and Caleb’s Crossing
"This is a gem of a book, a beautiful, wise, and big-hearted story about companionship and the true nature of virtue." –Diane Ackerman, author of One Hundred Names for Love
“A book about a dog that is ultimately a book about humanity… a beautiful, honest, joyful accounting of what matters.” –Terry Tempest Williams, author of Refuge and When Women Were Birds
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