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Phoenix Stories 2019: Hospice of the Valley — The magic of love

Hospice of the Valley volunteer Andrew Gaines (left) and social worker Michelle Bales visit with patient Walter “Wally” Brown and his mechanical cat, Sweetheart.

Special for Phoenix Business Journal
July 19, 2019
By Lin Sue Cooney

Walter Brown cracks jokes, pets his ‘cat’ Sweetheart, watches Westerns with his buddy, and reminisces about his service in World War II. 

‘Wally,’ as the affable 93-year-old is known at Avista Senior Living, lights up around people and opens up easily to friends and strangers alike. On good days, you wouldn’t know the witty Navy veteran charming his guests at the Sunnyslope care facility has moderate vascular dementia.

That’s because ... Wally fell in love. 

Walter Brown cracks jokes, pets his ‘cat’ Sweetheart, watches Westerns with his buddy, and reminisces about his service in World War II. ‘Wally,’ A few months ago, he was lonely, anxious and withdrawn, with no interest in leaving his room and socializing. He missed the house he had built in Mesa and, we’d learn soon, his cat.

‘He was very depressed,’ recalls his stepdaughter, Jane Babowicz. 

Hospice of the Valley assembled a team to help Wally successfully transition to a new setting and give him the round-the-clock holistic support — physical, emotional, social — he needed to lift his spirits.

His social worker Michelle Bales, case manager Tammi Spreier and certified nursing assistant Flora Berg worked together to meet his need for security. Hospice of the Valley volunteer Andrew Gaines hangs out with Wally on a regular basis, eating together and watching ‘Gunsmoke’ reruns. Larry Petrowski, a volunteer with the agency’s Saluting Our Veterans program, also has bonded with Wally over their shared military service.

‘I’ll have to call you chief,’ Wally tells the Air Force veteran.

But the star of the team is Sweetheart, a mechanical cat that has been a game changer for Wally and many other Hospice of the Valley dementia patients. 

These robotic companions help them ‘focus on something other than their physical problems and preoccupations about loss or aging,’ Spreier, a registered nurse, explains. Patients get more social interaction and physical activity, many even take their ‘pets’ for a walk!

Sweetheart (it’s a ‘she,’ Wally notes) moves every few seconds, gently tilting her head and wagging her tail, purring and meowing every so often. When Wally is not patting Sweetheart on his lap, he places her in a cat bed on his walker. When he goes to the cafeteria or lobby, he brings Sweetheart along and shows her off to other Avista residents.

‘From day one, this has been a magical transformation,’ Bales says. Wally now has ‘purpose, meaning and joy. He constantly chats about Sweetheart, saying ‘she is the most beautiful precious cat. When she gets bored, he even takes her to the lobby to watch the fish tank.’

‘Everyone says she’s got the prettiest face they’ve ever seen,’ Wally adds proudly.

Wally is no longer confined to his room. In fact, he has become quite the social butterfly at Avista. ‘He loves people and people love Wally and most can easily recognize his kind and caring nature’ Gaines says.

‘Walter has really flourished,’ Bales adds.

Lin Sue Cooney is community engagement director for Hospice of the Valley