DANVILLE — Jack Wagoner looked steadily into the cat’s blue eyes. A smile played across his face.
“This means an awful lot to me,” the World War II veteran said, never taking his eyes off the gray-and-white cat. “I’ll take care of it every day.”
Wagoner was one of 10 men in Honor House at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System who became pet owners this week. The robotic pets — two dogs and eights cats — were presented by members of the Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree on Thursday.
The soft, life-like dogs and cats have multiple sensors for movement, sounds and touch. The dogs yawn and sometimes yip; the cats purr, meow, blink and roll on their backs for tummy rubs. The voices can be set on mute.
Jenna Butler, recreation therapist, said the pets will be used as a tool to help veterans with dementia.
“I’m thrilled. I can’t wait to put it in place,” she said. “Pets can have a positive effect.”
Robotic pets can bring comfort, companionship and fun, and reduce the need for pharmacological interventions. Veterans with dementia may experience depression, anxiety and agitation, she said, but owning a pet —even a battery-operated one — helps them relax.
Some people with dementia have Sundowner’s syndrome, when their agitation becomes more pronounced at nightfall. The pets should help alleviate those behaviors, Butler said.
The pets also may stimulate owners’ motor skills, increase their pleasure and interest, and improve pro-social behavior. Butler said intervention is individual to each veteran.
When the pets were distributed Thursday, the men’s delight was obvious.
“This is what it’s all about — watching their joy,” Butler said.
“You get goosebumps,” Mike Puhr, a Knights of Columbus member, said while watching the veterans “play” with the animals.
The men spent some time naming their new companions.
Wagoner touched hearts when he named his cat Wanda Marie in memory of his wife.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he said, while the cat purred on his lap. “It makes me feel like my wife is alive. She loved cats.”
Orlando Rodriguez, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, settled on “Dog” as the name for his golden retriever with a red bandanna. The dog brought back memories of his youth, when his father owned boxers.
His wife, Jean, was just as enthralled, saying, “These are so cute.”
Alonzo “Don” Parker, a Korean War veteran with the Army, and his wife, Janice, decided to name his orange/white cat Jenny, after Jenna Butler. The couple has had pets in the past.
“I think it’s nice,” Janice said, reaching over to stroke the cat.
When a black-and-white cat was handed to Gerry Umphenour, a Navy veteran, he promptly fell asleep with the cat purring on his lap. He served a total of 24 years with the Navy, including Vietnam.
“It’s adorable,” wife Karen said, noting that the pet will be called Sylvester.
Jennifer Sheehan-Wells, voluntary services specialist, said the VA has used robotic pets in the past in a group setting, but has never had enough to give to each veteran. It was well-received then by veterans, and staff noticed an increase in tranquility.
“I foresee this being a good benefit,” she said. Other VA centers have used robotic pets for therapy.
Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree members raised $1,000 in recent months to buy 10 pets for veterans in the Alzheimer’s unit/Honor House at the VA. Cost was $100-120 for each pet; they were bought from Joy For All.
The K of C members volunteer at the VA, making donations of clothing, games, books and hygiene items. Rob Musgrove is the K of C representative, along with Bill Gifford and John Bodensteiner, at the VA’s quarterly meetings to find out what services are needed.
When Musgrove learned about the pets, and bought one to demonstrate, he suggested that the K of C Fourth Degree, with its emphasis on patriotism, buy the pets for VA residents.
The group also undertakes community projects, such as its annual Tootsie Roll sale to raise money for local children with disabilities, free-throw and poster contests for local youth, and supporting the local Catholic parishes. Its golf outing recently raised $1,000 for the Women’s Care Clinic, $1,000 for Love INC and $1,000 for a Vermilion County education group.