Oldfather Group Realtor makes lives a little more 'Sunny' for nursing home residents

A doctor can prescribe all the revolutionary medicines he wants, family members can visit regularly and filet mignon can even be served each and every day in the cafeteria – there's still perhaps no better method to cure what ails us that the loving embrace of an animal.

The "Pets on Wheels Delmarva" program takes that belief to heart, regularly sending southern Delaware residents and their pets to visit with patients in area nursing homes and assisted living facilities. It's a program near and dear to the heart of Celia Benjamin, a Realtor with the Oldfather Group of Ocean Atlantic Sotheby's International Realty.

"When you're out with your dog and you're visiting with folks, you're kind of like a rock star," says Benjamin, who visits with residents along with "Sunny," her 11-year-old black labrador retriever. "People just love it when Sunny and I come to visit and it really is a lot of fun."

As with many animals in the Pets on Wheels program, Sunny has a history of helping people who struggle with the daily rigors of life. He was a seeing eye dog for five years and, according to Benjamin, really enjoys interacting with nursing home residents.

Visits are regularly scheduled at nursing facilities throughout southern Delaware, including Brandywine Assisted Living in Rehoboth Beach, where Louise Enright works as the front desk concierge.

After working for 11 years at an area animal hospital, Enright realizes more than most how much a loving animal can impact the demeanor and the health of a house-bound patient.

"It's a known fact that when people touch or hold an animal, it lowers their blood pressure and can just change their whole attitude," says Enright, who brings her two miniature dachshunds to work with her on a regular basis. "They are good for whatever ails you, especially if you already love animals. It just makes our residents feel wonderful to sit there and play with them, while telling stories about their former pets."

Dr. Frank Folke Furstenberg, a retired allergist and Sinai Hospital physician, founded Pets on Wheels in Baltimore, in May of 1982. Originally, the program was meant to measure the effectiveness of pet visitation on shut-ins, with four volunteer teams visiting four nursing homes.

Furstenberg noted that the stimulation of playing with animals benefited the patients by getting them back to a higher quality of behavior. He noted that pets love unconditionally even when a person is no longer attractive, even-tempered or agile and that their warmth seems to make a difference in those they visit.

"It can be really wonderful when people who seem kind of lonely and depressed, and are sitting in a corner by themselves, just perk right up when a dog comes in," says Susan Bennett, former coordinator of the Delaware program and now the newsletter editor for Pets on Wheels Delmarva. "I'd like to think that they're making a real connection and maybe remembering a dog that they had in the past.

"It's people like Celia and her dog who make a real impact when they come to visit. She has such an outgoing personality that people just love seeing her come through the door."

The feeling, says Benjamin, is mutual, both for her and for her beloved Sunny.

Says the coastal Delaware Realtor: "There is no greater joy than making a difference in someone's life. If Sunny and I can do that in some small way, then we are grateful for the opportunity to do so."

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