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Online Program Brings Pets To Nursing Homes And Smiles To America’s Loneliest

CHICAGO (CBS) — Keeping the most vulnerable from the coronavirus means fighting another kind of sickness: loneliness. Restrictions make Christmas especially challenging for family members in nursing and senior living homes.

CBS 2’s Marissa Parra found some new ideas that have tails wagging.

Nine months in to the COVID-19 pandemic, most are familiar with the capabilities devices have to keep people from feeling lonely in quarantine, but now computers are not just bringing families together. They are bringing pets to the loneliest Americans as well.

“We don’t even see our neighbors next to our own rooms most of the time,” said Tina Motter, a nursing home resident who said she is feeling lonely. 

Motter is just one of roughly 1.5 million Americans in a nursing home. It is no secret it can be a bit lonely.

“It’s very hard when you’re confined to a room all day,” said nursing home resident Renee Anderson.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there are no visitors. Staff members are dressed head to toe in protective gear, and many seniors can rarely leave their rooms.

A national survey by the Altarum Institute shows 76% of nursing home residents say since the pandemic began it is the loneliest they have ever felt. This means keeping the most vulnerable populations safe and social takes a little creativity with a computer.

“Even I get down sometimes, and it always puts a smile on my face to see dogs especially,” said Motter.

Who says Zoom is just for humans?

Roz is 180 pounds on four legs. She and her human, Dr. Linda Herreid, used to visit nursing homes in person.

“Suddenly everything was shut down, and we couldn’t do anything,” said Herreid.

Now, through Pets Together program, they make their virtual rounds to senior centers around the country from their home in Illinois.

“I love it because I haven’t had a dog in six, seven years,” said Motter.

“It brings back wonderful memories of my dogs and my cats,” said Anderson.

For DuPage nursing home residents like Anderson and Motter, the virtual visit with pets make their universe inside the building feel a little bigger and a little brighter. Especialy during the holidays in a pandemic.

“Everybody’s cheerful when they’re watching virtual pets,” said Motter. “Everyone’s just up.”

“I love the animals,” said Anderson. “It’s just enjoyable to see all of them. That’s what gets us through this.”

Motter and Anderson said the DuPage Care Center also keeps them busy with bingo over loudspeakers from their rooms and coloring contests.

CBS 2 spoke with a few nursing home facilities Friday that said they have their hands full trying to schedule Zoom calls with their residents’ loved ones on Christmas.