Nursing home visits brighten residents’ days


For a dog lover living in a nursing home, few sights are more cheering than a wagging tail coming down a hallway for a visit.

Nursing home visits is one of the programs offered by Shaare Emeth to congregants through its Caring Committee but one volunteer brings something extra.


“We have one member, Warren, who has been doing (the nursing home visits) for about two years now. He goes and actually brings his dogs. I know it means a whole lot to the people he visits,” said Rabbi Annie Belford, who works with the Shaare Emeth Caring Committee.

“(The nursing home visit program) is called Gutteh Neshamah, which is ‘good soul’ in Yiddish,” said Rabbi Belford. “We have a group of volunteers and they go to different nursing homes and make regular visits to people who live in nursing homes. They basically just go and spend time with them, and they forge relationships with them. It is a really beautiful thing.”

Volunteer Warren Danziger regularly visits Shaare Emeth congregants in nursing homes accompanied by his two small dogs. He and the dogs often get a dog-gone happy reception from both residents and staff.

“They react just as you would expect, particularly the former dog owners. Some folks aren’t particularly interested but most of them spend quite of bit of time with the dogs, or one of the dogs,” he said.

“Both dogs are West Highland White Terriers, known as Westies for short,” Danziger said. “The older dog is Muffie and she is 14 years old. She is just not much of a jump-up-and-pet-me kind of dog but she likes to get petted.”

Nursing home visits with his dogs had long been a part of Danziger’s plan for his retirement. “I have two dogs and I have a background in gerontology,” said Danziger, who has a PhD in the field. “I had read about folks who visit with pets (in nursing homes) and I thought that would work out very well for me, for the dogs and for the patients.”

After he retired, he contacted a couple of groups that train dogs for nursing home visits but ran into a snag. “One of them had a cut-off of 10 years old for the dogs and one of my dogs is older than that. Even if they had taken the older one, they only let you do one dog at a time,” Danziger said.

Looking around for another volunteering option, Danziger thought of his own congregation, Shaare Emeth. “It just seemed like a logical place to start,” he said.

Of course, Danziger did not take his dogs along on his first nursing home visits as part of the Gutteh Neshamah program but things soon changed.

“The first time I went to visit congregants, I noticed one of the nursing homes had their own dog, and that the activity director had a dog,” he said. “So I asked ‘can I bring my dogs?’ and they said ‘sure!'”

So next time, the dogs went with him, after a few questions for his insurance agent. “So I started visiting congregants, and anybody else in the nursing home who seemed interested in having a visitor. We usually visit for an hour to an hour-and-a-half, depending on who is available,” Danziger said.

“One of the dogs, Teri, the eight year old, is very affectionate,” said Danziger. “She likes getting up on their laps and giving them little dog kisses and washing their face, and there are a few people who like that.”

Danziger started volunteering about a year and a half ago. Rabbi Belford spoke highly of his commitment to the program.

“He did visit one man for over a year, until he passed away,” she said. “The man that he visited was not very aware, he had severe dementia. Although he was not very aware of what was happening around him, when the dogs would visit, he would perk right up.”

Danziger is one of four current volunteers with Shaare Emeth’s Gutteh Neshamah program, although the only one who visits with his dogs.

“We have had varying numbers of volunteers,” Belford said. “We have had, at the lowest, two volunteers for Gutteh Neshamah, and at the highest, we had about 14. You know, people’s lives change and their time availability changes, but they have all come and said ‘this is something I want to do.'”

Danziger, who lives in University City, visits various locations. “I go out to Sunrise, over here on Clayton Road in Richmond Heights, and I go to Autumn View Gardens, which is just west of (the Jewish Community Center) on Schuetz Road. That is about as far west as I want to go.”

The Shaare Emeth Caring Committee offers congregants more than doggy nursing home visits.

“We basically have seven different programs,” said Rabbi Belford.

Among the more long-running programs within the Caring Committee are the Shiva Committee, who sit shiva with bereaved congregants and families, Roshei Minyan (Leaders of Worship) who lead shiva services, Bikkur Cholim (Visiting the Sick), whose members send notes to congregants in the hospital or recently released, and Simcha Notes (Notes of Joy), who send notes to mark significant birthdays, anniversaries and other happy occasions.

The Gutteh Neshamah nursing home visits are one of three new programs, along with “Mitzvah Meals,” whose volunteers prepare and deliver meals to congregants in need, and Hineynu (We Are Here), whose volunteers serve as surrogate family for congregants in crisis who do not have a local family or support network. “All of the programs, really, are about reaching out to our congregants, when they are in need or when they are celebrating. That is really the essence of what it means to be part of the Shaare Emeth community, or any Jewish community,” Belford said.