Dogs & Older Adults: A Magical Connection

Dogs & Older Adults: A Magical Connection

By: Peter Zollo, Cofounder of Joe & Bella

Peter Zollo is one of the co-founders of Joe & Bella, an adaptive-apparel brand for older adults. He co-founded Joe & Bella soon after he ended his nearly decade-long journey as a family caregiver to both of his parents. 

Jozie & Bella, 2015

Jozie & Bella, 2015

During the 10 years of my near-daily visits to my parents’ (and then only my mom’s) assisted- care community, my dog Jozie, a sweet, calm white Golden Retriever, accompanied me pretty much every time. Visiting my parents became Jozie’s thing to do. She waited as patiently as she could every day for the signal that we were going for a visit.

At my parents’ first community, Jozie was on leash except when visiting my parents in their room. What so amazed me she intuited how to distinctly treat and react to each of my parents (similar to our favorite caregivers).

My mom, who was never particularly fond of large dogs, made an exception for Jozie. In fact, each morning, my mom asked a caregiver to place a dog treat in her purse, preparing for Jozie’s daily visit. Unfortunately, Jozie was Pavolvian, and my mom was not exactly quick in retrieving the dog treat that she dropped somewhere in her purse that morning. So, while Jozie waited as patiently as she could, she’d begin to foam at her mouth and, by the time my mother extracted the treat, Jozie left a bit of a puddle on the floor. Fortunately, my mom (who was a bit of a neat freak in her younger days) never seemed to see it, as I cleaned it up as quickly as possible. 

My dad was in a wheelchair at that time, living with Parkinsonian dementia. He always loved dogs, though he thought he got “gypped” as an only child in that the dog his parents finally gifted him was an 8-pound barky Boston Terrier. He always wanted a Dalmatian and promised that when I was age six in the spring that our family would finally get our long-awaited-for pet dog. And, just as he said, when I was 10 in the fall, I won out. Except we ended up with a Miniature Schnauzer, which was the same breed as my mother’s sister’s dog, and some 40 pounds lighter and far less active than a Dalmation. And, as it turned out, the Schnauzer was a one-person dog and that person was my mother. 

When I turned 21 and was away at college, my parents sent me $50 for my birthday and, sure enough, I found a classified ad for a Dalmation puppy for exactly $50. Tara was followed by a rescue part Lab, a Collie, a Black Lab, and finally Jozie. My dad – and reluctantly my mom – loved all of these dogs and welcomed them into our family.

During the final years of my dad’s life, he and Jozie developed a special connection. When he was in his wheelchair and – because of Parkinson’s – couldn’t lower his head to see Jozie, she carefully put one paw on each of his knees and stood up on her hind legs so that she could look my dad straight in his eyes. I’ll never forget his huge smile each time he saw that happy canine face staring joyfully into his.  

The amazing thing was that Jozie knew that she dare not do that to my mom! Instead, when she was given the run of the community, she’d find my mom as quickly as she could and would sit next to her politely (well, except for the foam that immediately started coming out of her mouth).

Joe and Bella, who welcomed my parents the evening of their first move-in and became an important part of our lives, lived on the third floor. Bella, who also always was prepared with treats for Jozie, never got over that this Golden Retriever somehow knew exactly how to find their suite upstairs. “Jozie is just so smart! How does she know that?” Bella would remark time after time. 

Jozie distinguished between the wants of her two grandparents: polite with grandma, playful with grandpa 1Jozie distinguished between the wants of her two grandparents: polite with grandma, playful with grandpa 2
Jozie distinguished between the wants of her two grandparents: polite with grandma, playful with grandpa

As special as Jozie is and as magical was the connection she enjoyed with my parents and Joe and Bella, she of course isn’t unique. We’ve seen other dogs who also intuit exactly what older adults want from them, and nothing makes these dogs happier than getting that pat, treat, or even a hug. At my parents’ second community, Jozie was given free reign of the place by Sarah, the Executive Director. When I brought Jozie in for the first time on a leash, Sarah told me, “Peter, this is a home. You wouldn’t have Jozie on a leash in your own home.” So, Jozie gained about 10 pounds during my mom’s time there, as she found another special skill in helping housekeeping clean the dining-room floor. She even learned to ride the elevator – everybody got a kick out of seeing the doors open on their floor and out walked Jozie. 

Jozie’s fame reached the point where caregivers instructed her to get up on the bed of residents who were in hospice care. Jozie just seemed to know she was needed and was able and happy to provide comfort. She found her purpose.

And then Covid changed everyday life. When my mom’s new memory-care community went into lockdown, our daily in-person visits ended. I tried to show my mom Jozie during FaceTime calls, but that just wasn’t my mom’s thing. We also visited outdoors when weather permitted, but that also proved to be frustrating for my mom, who always reminded us that she missed her college days at UCLA because of the perfect weather, which was something Chicago just didn’t offer. 

I now have pictures to remind me of Jozie, my parents, Joe and Bella. What a lucky dog. 

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