Retirement Community Honors Canine Visitor With Birthday Party – By Francine Fulton

While the guest of honor slept comfortably in the lap of one of the senior residents, the birthday party continued for Bear, a 7-year-old Maltese, Pomeranian and poodle mix who is a friendly visitor at the Zerbe Retirement Community in Narvon.

Bear is owned by Sam and Jill Waters of Still Waters Ministries. The couple is friends with Cheryl Heineman, Zerbe’s director of activities, who is a member of Conestoga Mennonite Church, where the office of Still Waters Ministries is located.

“They asked me to watch him when they went on vacation – that’s how we started getting Bear,” said Heineman, noting that Bear regularly visits the residents several days each month. “When they go on vacation, he could be here a week or more.”

Although Bear is not a registered therapy dog, he is categorized as a pet visitor. “He is now in his third year (visiting),” Heineman noted. “The first time he was here, he came with me (to work) for 10 days in a row. Everybody fell in love with him. He is very good with everybody.”

Heineman said that Bear’s visits have made an impact on many of the residents. “For the residents who are not able to communicate, I will lay Bear on their lap and they can touch him,” Heineman said. “One resident (wasn’t speaking), and the first time I put Bear on her lap, she started to talk. And, if she doesn’t say something, her eyes light up and she gets a big smile on her face.”

Bear’s owners do not accompany him to the retirement community, which allows Heineman time to let the residents visit with him throughout the entire workday. “He loves being here,” she said. “When I go to (the Waterses’ house) to pick him up, he is so excited.”

Bear’s party included musical entertainment by the center’s two music therapists, Alex Eskin and Sam Kulp, who both sang dog-related songs, including “Old Blue” and Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” Also included was a dog slideshow, a dog trivia contest and other games led by activity aide Jeannie Burkhart. Bear was presented with gifts, which included a dog toy and treats.

During the party, Heineman also asked the residents why they love Bear, to which they responded, “He’s lovable and friendly, he loves us and he loves to play with us.”

“He gives kisses, he cuddles and he brings joy to people,” Heineman added.

To conclude the festivities, the residents enjoyed milk and cookies.