When Copper Canyon Alzheimer's Special Care Center first took in a litter of kittens from the Pima Animal Care Center, things started to change pretty quickly.
The most stoic, hard-to-engage residents were coming into the kitten room to visit the new, furry residents every day. Visiting family members started spending afternoons with their loved ones playing with the kittens. The staff even had to move a special recliner into the kitten room for a resident named Kent, who refused to leave the room and became known affectionately as "the kitten master."
Kent is eager to introduce me to Copper Canyon's fourth and fifth litters of kittens. He has a condition called primary progressive aphasia, which has impaired his language abilities, but not his ability to understand others. He speaks with such passion and conviction and familiar cadence that I often found I could understand what he meant despite what he said.
He explains that he sits in his recliner, lets the kittens out to play, makes sure they have food and water when they need it and even cleans the kittens' cages. His wife, Carol, says she's tried telling Kent this isn't his responsibility, but he insists it is.
"[If] they need me, I gotta go," he says.
Before all of this, Kent worked as a paramedic, and he and Carol have also rescued two dogs, so the role of caregiver comes naturally for him.
"He's the key," says Terri Waldman, the director of Copper Canyon. "The sense of purpose that he has developed through taking care of kittens is really hard to develop in people with cognitive disorders. Kent's got it back."
Now that it exists, the idea to pair kittens and memory care facility residents seems almost too obvious. If you're a human, there's nothing quite so comforting as the warmth of a kitten. If you're a kitten, there's nothing quite so comforting as having someone to take care of you and love you.
PACC has partnered with Copper Canyon (as well as other Tucson memory care facilities Catalina Springs Memory Care, Handmaker and Hacienda at the River) to pair at-risk kittens with facility residents. Around Copper Canyon, it's unofficially known as the "kitten collaboration." Copper Canyon already incorporates some forms of animal therapy, like having a dog come in once a week and letting family members bring pets to visit residents, so Waldman was eager to get involved.
The beginnings of the partnership were documented in an episode of Shelter Me, a new PBS film series set to begin airing in early 2018. The Loft hosted a special screening of the kitten collaboration episode on Dec. 2.
Following the screening, The Petco Foundation awarded PACC a $250,000 grant for the expansion of the kitten program and other community-based initiatives. PACC Director Kristen Auerbach was completely surprised.
"I saw the check, and I was so excited—I thought maybe they gave us $10,000," she says. "This grant is going to totally change the game for this program."
During kitten season, which happens twice a year in the spring and fall, PACC receives hundreds of kittens that need places to stay, feedings every two hours and socialization practice before they're ready to be adopted at eight weeks old.
"We were really desperate to get kittens out of the shelter alive," she says. "They're our single most vulnerable population."
Not only does the partnership provide a home for kittens before they're ready to adopt, but Auerbach says that so far, none of the kittens who have stayed at memory care facilities have needed to come back to PACC. They've all been adopted by facility staff, resident family members and friends, or other visitors, such as social workers. All of that TLC from staff and residents makes for well-socialized, especially adoptable kittens.
Like the kittens, the residents at facilities like Copper Creek are vulnerable in their own way, yes. But they're more than that. In fact, Waldman calls them "Buddhas on Earth"—while the rest of us struggle to learn how to live in the moment, that's all most of her residents can do.
"If you can get there with them, you can experience a lot of joy," she says. "There's something going on with them that we don't understand, and it's really beautiful."
I've never heard such a sunny perspective on the subject, and I tell Waldman so. Isn't it scary, not being able to communicate with someone you love? She interrupts me gently.
"But do you need words to communicate?" she says. "I think words screw us up."
You don't need to look any further than the kitten room to see that she's right. You can see the love in one resident's eyes when his gentle taps on top of the cage and is rewarded by a kitten looking at him and meowing. You can hear the joy in Kent's voice when he explains how he could never choose a favorite kitten. And you can feel the comfort that the kittens bring, in their sweet and wordless way.
"Animals don't need language, and with this disease, language is really overrated," Waldman says. "The kittens help people stay in the moment."