NEW ULM - It was a difficult day for residents and staff at Oak Hills Living Center a few weeks ago when George the cat died.
"He was a fixture here," said Oak Hills Residential Therapy Aide Mary Thom. "It was a sad day when he died in the hallway. Lots of us gathered in the chapel, many of us tearful, before he went to the veterinarian. He often sat in rooms where people were having their last days. I thought many times, he seemed to knew when he was most needed, although he wasn't a trained therapy cat."
For more than 15 years, George was often the first thing people noticed when they walked into Oak Hills, Office Manager Cindy Williams said.
After many, many years of providing company to residents and their families and the staff of Oak Hills Living Center, George the cat has died.
"Kids would often ask where he was if he wasn't by the front door," Williams said. "He was our greeter, so to speak. He would go into residents' rooms when he knew they needed company, comfort or a distraction, sometimes for weeks at a time."
Some nursing home residents would talk to George, according to Williams. Their family members would bring him treats. One family member became so attached to George, she returned to the nursing home weekly to sit with him, even after her mother died.
Oak Hills residents shared fond memories of him and talked about their favorite feline Monday.
"I appreciated him. He'd meow and look at you when you talked to him. He was always friendly," Bernice Syverson said.
"He was cute and seemed to smile back at me when I talked to him, which I did quite often," said Irene Domeier.
"He'd peek at me through the doorway and often visit," said Phyllis Rolloff.
Not long after George died, Oak Hills got a new cat, Macie, who was keeping second-floor residents company Monday afternoon.
Although dogs have more traditionally been recruited as therapy animals, and horses are the second-most favored, cats have been used as companions to aid the recovery and well-being of stroke victims. Companion cats are said to help lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, increase sensory stimulation, ward off depression and inspire a sense of purpose.
Therapy cats are sometimes used in hospitals to relax children who are patients. Some studies claim therapy animals can work as well as or better than pharmaceutical medicine to help people relax, decrease stress, lower blood pressure and reduce heart rates.
One researcher reviewing 25 studies found positive effects of pets on nursing home patients, and it found evidence that the animals helped patients be more alert, smile more often, and that the presence of pets helped physically-aggressive patients calm down and allow other humans to be near them.
Therapy cats were found to be especially valuable when interacting with Alzheimer's Disease patients, by stimulating memory and forgotten emotions.
(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org).