Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home by Sue Halpern

My grandmother lives in a nursing home and we've been visiting her there for years. She's been in just about every level its possible to be so we've seen the gamut of people living there with her: very engaged, lonely, chatty, angry, happy, depressed, curmudgeonly, mentally agile, living in the past, and just about every other state of being imaginable as well. I don't know if there are any therapy dogs making rounds at my grandmother's home but my mom occasionally takes her dog to visit my grandma and the other residents adore it when Docker visits. Unlike many people, dogs can look beyond the wrinkles, the arthritis-crippled hands, stroke-drooped cheeks, sparse hair, hunched backs, wheelchairs and walkers and into the unchanged heart of an elderly person. They carry no preconceived ideas and the only judgment they offer is over whether a person likes them or not. And this is why some dogs make such wonderful therapy dogs, offering so much love and healing to people, especially those living out their last days, months, years in a home.

Sue Halpern's A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home details her journey with her lovely, calm labradoodle, Pransky, as Pranny gets certified as a therapy dog and the two of them start visiting the residents at the local county nursing home. Halpern's daughter leaves for college and her husband is often on the road, ushering her into a new phase of life.  Just as Halpern is looking for a new direction to go with her much expanded free time, her dog is also suffering from serious boredom.  Both of them need a new sense of purpose. Halpern stumbles across it in the description of therapy dogs, recognizing Pransky in that description. And then she discovers that there's more to being a therapy dog team than just being willing; there's serious training and a certification process before they can start visiting and helping others.

The first portion of the book is very much centered on Pransky's background and the training and certification that they do together while the second addresses their work in the home. In both halves though, Halpern offers reflective musings on the seven virtues of a good life: courage, wisdom, justice, restraint, love, hope and faith, and the ways in which their experiences embody these virtues. As an ethics professor, she waxes philosophical, quoting other writers and numerous studies on aging and the benefits of therapy animals. She ponders the reality of aging and our society's tendency to stop viewing the elderly as unique individuals with fascinating life experiences behind them and instead see them as passive and probably uninteresting old people. She examines the reason for the proliferation of nursing homes and the need for such places not only for the elderly but also for disabled young people as well.

The book is very well written but the philosophical digressions overshadow the personal aspects of Halpern and Pranny's experiences, which are likely to be the bits for which the majority of readers are looking. There are some stories about the people she and Pranny meet and their interactions but even those that are included don't fully share who these men and women are. This may be a privacy issue but it definitely causes the narrative to lean much heavier towards the drier research and philosophy angle than the sweet and heartwarming human/dog interest angle. But if a reader goes into it knowing that, this a thoughtful, compassionate, and thought-provoking story for anyone interested in the elderly and the question of dignity in our own mortality.

Thanks to the publisher and LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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