On nurturing the positive …and therapy dogs

Last weekend, I was with a group of about 40 odd people, caregivers, care-receivers and support and counselling staff at the SAA (Schizophrenia Awareness Association) at their Dhayari centre in Pune. I felt proud and honoured to be there, representing Caregivers Link, invited by Minal of the Animal Angels Foundation to share an afternoon’s interaction time and space with her. Her main purpose was to introduce the concept of animal assisted therapy (AAT) and activity (AAA) with her co-therapist Scotty and assess the possibility of working with this group in the long term. My main purpose was to bring in the caregiving perspective into the afternoon’s engagement, and possibly identify and explore new directions for more joint work between the SAA and Caregivers Link.This piece is written as a window glimpse into the afternoon. There were wonderful moments, happiness and laughter, Scotty the dog was a star, and scary moments for me when I had to follow the dog’s item number with my own!

The afternoon went something like this…

Neelima from the SAA started things off and introduced the afternoon’s people and proceedings. Minal took over and interacted with the participants on various pet-animal-people-dog-parrot related matters. She progressed to speak of AAT, the unconditional acceptance of animals and the multiple value-adds possible with a therapy animal.

Then she introduced Scott. Scott entered the room with Saee his volunteer handler following him, one end of his leash in her hand, the other end of his leash in his mouth! It was easy to imagine a red-feather-cap on his head because he had a cavalier saunter, did a celebrity style walkthrough between the participants, a grin on his dog face, ready to be made much of – and he was certainly received with much enthusiasm. More than half the room left their chairs and ended up on their knees to meet him. Those that remained seated made many attempts to whistle and clap and generally sound like an out of synch orchestra, trying to call him to them. Even a self-confessed ‘afraid-of-dogs’ person ended up a few minutes later petting him.(It must be said for Scotty, he pressurised nobody, he could teach me good manners and social skills and I realised that his personality was far more sedate and dignified than mine will ever be 😉 )

As I watched the proceedings I must confess that with all the joy I felt observing the event, I also felt this heart-sinking feeling – how was I going to match up to Scott? Why would caregivers and care-receivers always in the world of care roles and responsibilities want to engage with more caregivery business after a wonderful and so very different interaction with a furry, tail-wagging live stress reliever?

Too soon it was my turn. I don’t know Marathi and the language of choice here was Marathi. Even Scott knows Marathi. Feeling all manner of fear, I got up, confessed that I don’t speak Marathi, confessed that I am afraid of speaking into mikes and also confessed that I was afraid to follow Scott in the proceedings! That raised a laugh and I could feel sympathy. I had decided that rather than speech-ifying I would try and take-off from where Scott left off.

Scott had left off at a point where everyone in the room was feeling these wonderful, positive happy little feelings in a little space within themselves that mirrored the air of cheer in the room. From personal experience I know, the most crucial skill and capacity one can have in the process of healing and well-being, is to nurture and ‘call-in’ at will that same positive happy feeling within oneself, that otherwise appears to be so ephemeral, fleeting, so swift to vanish. So we all need codes, words, reminders – we need to be able to train those feelings to return to us – fetch them when we need them. Somewhat like Aamir Khan’s character in the film where he goes off every now and then singing “all is well” (doesn’t he?) but instead of singing it, we need to recall what we have nurtured, the feeling of positive good with all of it’s intense ability to lift us out of impending frustration, anger, fear or depression.

I figured that for families of caregivers and care-receivers, journeying together along the terribly challenging path of care, some of the greatest stresses come from their relationships and roles. I spoke out this thought.

Its a little bit like the siblings, the parents and children, the husband and wife who forget that homework, electricity bill, grocery shopping, or walking your kid sister to singing lessons when your friends are watching a DVD – are things you do, they are not the feelings you hold for that person or that relationship. Your wife is not the grocery list of items she has asked you to bring home after work. Your daughter is not the report card with it’s A+ you want her to bring home to you.

The relationship has something you value about the other person at it’s core. Something positive, the thing(s) that makes you feel good when you think about that person. This is what needs recall. This makes all the difference specially when health and well-being are in the balance.

So we did a quick little exercise where all participants were given a small chit of paper in which they had to write just one thing they really felt good about in the main ‘other’ person in their life, caregiver or care-receiver. Nobody was to write any names or identify themselves or anybody else in any way.

I felt so happy when people sat down with their chits and took time out to think. Some wrote immediately, some pondered and took their time pondering. Some were not clear about what was wanted of them so Minal and the others walked around the room and clarified the exercise as needed.

And the chits started rolling in! From the heart articulations of feeling, positive feeling, for the one main person in the care relationship with them. The key words that leapt out of these many hand-written scrawls were caring, dedication, commitment, understanding, happiness, priority, love, responsibility, concern, cooperation, calmness, acceptance, will power, innocence and … the one chit that stood out with just one word on it – trust.

These words and feelings were shared with everyone as we read out some of those chits. Those were the key words that we hoped could be code words for many in the group, reminders and recallers of the core positive in their relationship. Operating from that space, the attitude to the significant other in the care relationship may remain protected despite stress, frustration or tension.

The SAA team ended the proceedings and the general consensus was that not only would Minal and her co-therapist animals return to the group, but that the key words in the hand-written chits would be typed up into a list and shared with participants – to aid recall of the positive when a relationship with caregiver or care-receiver is under particular stress over some to-do.We were all given roses, Scotty too, and this is him looking quite pleased with a rose between his teeth. He didn’t chew, eat or spit it out – he accepted it with grace! (Apologies for the poor picture quality, in no way does it do him justice :-( )

One last look at something through this window… After it was all over and many got up to leave, many also came up to us, some to Minal because they wanted to know more about her work, and some to me, because they wanted to know more about mine, or give me some feedback. Of these, two conversations stand out for me.

One was with a care-receiver who wanted to tell me that for him it is hard to see anything positive about any relationship when there appears to be nobody who cares for you. He went on to tell me bits of his story, how he took on the challenge that was his life, and how he learnt to focus on the good despite so much that simply wasn’t. Listening to him, I felt reinforced in my belief that for the benefit of this caregiving teamwork, in support of this partnership between caregiver and care-receiver, it is critical to amplify the voices and the experiences of both.

That is one of our first roles. We’ve not just got to listen and understand, we’ve got to forward, raise the volume, increase the audience, keep up the participation. Instead of a game of chinese whispers we need to gather the crowd, have people shout back and forth over each other’s heads and make it a conversation that involves everyone. Give everyone a mic, or teach everyone to sign, or sketch or mime, create and use technology that allows communication no matter what the level of or type of ability of the individual.

And finally, the second conversation that stays with me, has nothing to do with caregiving. Or perhaps it does, but that would be another session. This participant came up to me and discussed my personality as he perceived it, with a big smile on his face. This he said, was in the context of women’s rights, portrayal of women and women’s role in society. He spoke of social norms, attitudes to women, women’s sense of self and self image and how there is much that needs to change. I have to admit I was both a little floored and also fascinated by the strange tangential but so-important discussions that can happen within groups. Another thing to think about – how important it is to create spaces where people caught up with care concerns and responsibilities can put them aside for a bit, to talk about other things they feel strongly about, other things they want to engage on but perhaps don’t get a chance to.

Thank you to all concerned for your patience, your enthusiastic participation and certainly your support and encouragement. Please leave your feedback, thoughts and comments here; your post will not ‘show’ immediately since all comments are moderated, generally within 12 to 24 hours. Comments on this article will stay enabled till March 15, 2013, but will be closed after that since we have a lot of problems with spam. For more information on SAA, visit their website here. For more information on Minal’s work, visit her website here, animalangels.org.in To read about our first contact with the SAA in 2011, click here!

8 comments

  1. harish shetty says:

    brilliant and touching shika……great work

    1. admin says:

      Thank you for reading and responding Dr. H.S. Your common sense advice, support and faith are a huge part of the fuel in the caregivers link engine. Will keep you posted as things proceed.

  2. Prabha says:

    Wonderfully heart warming account! All the best for many more such wonderful events.

    1. admin says:

      Prabha it would be lovely to have you join us as and when you can for some of these events. Thank you as always for all your support and encouragement.

  3. RC says:

    What a heart-warming wonderful report! And so filled with wisdom, not only for care-givers but for us to remember in all our relationships. Thank you! Hugs to Scotty!

    1. admin says:

      Dear RC – thank you. Much of the wisdom is from wise friends and family. Happy to have you read and respond as you do.

  4. admin says:

    Thank you for writing in :-) looking forward to fresh directions and new projects together.

  5. Amrit says:

    Thanks for an elaborate coverage of the event. Unfortunately i was not able to attend the program due to some unavoidable personal commitment. Reading your report is only next to attending it in person. The team of Minal and Scotty are doing a wonderful work in helping the persons with mental and intellectual issues. I am happy that our shubhankars and shubhartis besides volunteers and staff could interact with them.

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