Halpern and her therapy dog give insight into aging

MIDDLEBURY — She’s been visiting Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center (HPHRC) just about every Tuesday for more than three years, but the senior residents still line up for her arrival, hoping to get some eye contact and a handshake or two. No need for an exchange of words.
Not that the celebrity in question can speak in complete sentences; her vocabulary is confined to the occasional “woof.”
But Pransky doesn’t have to communicate with words; the 10-year-old Labradoodle speaks volumes with the affection she displays as half of the therapy dog team led by her master, Ripton’s Sue Halpern.
And Pransky’s celebrity is poised to grow far beyond Helen Porter Healthcare and Addison County, thanks to a new book recently released by Halpern, “A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher.” It’s Halpern’s sixth book and is already generating a lot of buzz, most recently from the folks at NBC’s “Today Show.” A “Today” crew was in town on Tuesday to get footage for an interview that Halpern has already had with Jane Pauley, who hosts a monthly segment called “Your Life Calling.” The segment is tentatively scheduled to air sometime in June.
Halpern did not team up with Pransky with the notion that their exploits would end up as literary fodder. One of her previous books dealt with the subject of age-related memory loss, and she decided around four years ago to volunteer her services in that milieu at the local nursing home.
“I was very familiar with that set of pathologies,” she explained.
When she made her offer, the folks at HPHRC made a counter-offer.
“I was told that what they needed was to have a therapy dog in the general population,” Halpern recalled.
So she recruited her trusty sidekick Pransky, then 6, for a training regimen in an effort to become certified as a therapy dog team. Certification, Halpern learned, hinged on trainer and animal passing all 15 parts of a final exam. The dog must, among other things, maintain a calm demeanor and respond well to basic commands.
“I looked through the 15 (requirements) and many, I knew, Pransky could pass,” Halpern said. “But there were a few I thought Pransky was destined for failure.”
One potential pitfall, Halpern thought, was the requirement that the dog walk on a leash without pulling. Halpern noted that having been raised in rural Vermont, Pransky had rarely been leashed for walks. As such, Halpern was concerned about successfully containing her dog’s inherent exuberance and natural desire to move more quickly than her human.
“I was convinced she would be a great therapy dog, but I was not convinced she would pass the test,” Halpern said candidly. But the two buddies trained vigorously right up to the big test in August of 2009 in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
“She did really well,” Halpern said of Pransky, though she conceded, “It was unclear until the last moment that she was going to pull it off.”
But they did, with flying colors, and began their weekly volunteer visits to Helen Porter in September of 2009. Their assignment has not been tough, but it has certainly been appreciated by the dozens of HPHRC residents who light up when Pransky prances through the door.
As she notes in her new book, Halpern realized right off the bat that many of the seniors with whom Pransky would mingle were raised with one or more animals. The residents yearned for that familiar dose of unconditional love from a dog that can also provide a reminder of youth and life back on the homestead.
Indeed, Pransky and Halpern have lifted the spirits of hundreds of HPHRC residents during the three-plus years they have been walking the halls of the facility. Companionship has been their biggest gift, and Pransky has been a grateful recipient of many pats. She has also, at the patient’s invitation, hopped on a bed or two and perched her front paws on the knees of a wheelchair-bound resident seeking a closer look. Pransky has (with assistance) played — and won — a game of bingo, one of the top activities at Helen Porter. Wheelchair-bound residents have been able to walk Pransky, as long as they wear a seatbelt.
Smiles have been ample reward for the two volunteers, who have in turn benefitted from the visits.
“After a few months at (HPHRC), I understood the phrase ‘Old age is not for sissies’ better than before, if I’d actually ever understood it before,” Halpern writes in her book. “And I was getting older myself, and Pransky was getting older even faster, so that the unbending facts of my own mortality and hers lurked even closer to the surface of my consciousness.”
Halpern has found inspiration through many of the HPHRC residents as they confront their own mortality and persevere through illnesses and other setbacks.
And the two have been faithful to their friends to the end. Pransky was with one of her most loyal fans as her life slipped away. Halpern and Pransky attended the graveside service of another resident.
Halpern in her book speaks of one of HPHRC’s younger residents telling her that her mom would like Pransky. Halpern asked her where her mom was located.
“In heaven,” was her reply, to which Halpern answered, “Pransky has a lot of friends in heaven.”
As Halpern and Pransky made new friends and logged new memories, Halpern considered recounting some of those experiences through a book.
“As a writer, I’m always looking to see what the story is,” Halpern said. “I kept on thinking, ‘What’s the story here?’ and ‘Is there a story here?’ As I kind of started to answer it, the story was, what happens to me when I end up in a place where people are likely to be in their last home, and what do you learn from that? What do you learn from people who have lived on the planet for nine decades? What do you learn about human nature when you see someone in their 40s who’s had a debilitating stroke? These are large questions and they sort of sorted themselves out.”
Halpern credited her liberal arts education for training her in considering some of the big questions for her narrative. Those questions have touched upon philosophy, religion and other subjects.
When she decided to write the book, she remained committed to preserving the confidentiality of all those featured, including HPHRC patients and administrators. She even referred to HPHRC as “County,” though she has since decided to share the identity of the venue with interviewers. And Helen Porter officials are pleased about that, as the book paints a very positive picture of HPHRC, its services and its efforts to bring community volunteers and activities into the facility to make it more home-like. Helen Porter workers who have seen the book have been having fun deconstructing the real people behind the aliases.
The book among other things describes what HPHRC Administrator Neil Gruber calls the “nursing home culture change” that is in effect and that has been making Helen Porter less institutional in its character and ambiance. He and HPHRC Activities Director Nancy Durham described a litany of programs that have brought more volunteers and amenities into the facility. For example, in addition to a therapy dog team, residents enjoy games, sing-alongs and dances led by area students, pumpkin carving sessions, Christmas tree decorating, decentralized dining, an annual summer event with a picnic, pancake breakfasts, and a daily raising of the colors.
“These residents are part of our community, and that doesn’t stop just because they are here,” Durham said.
Many of the great activity ideas, Gruber said, have come from some of Helen Porter’s entry-level employees.
“It puts the resident at the center and all of the activities revolve around it,” said Gruber, who just completed his 15th year at the helm of HPHRC. “My staff has bought into that concept.”
The Helen Porter board of directors now includes some patients’ family members, something that Gruber hopes will intensify the organization’s patient-centered philosophy. Gruber also soon hopes to see a Helen Porter resident on the board.
Durham watched intently on Tuesday as the NBC crew filmed Halpern and Pransky as they interacted with more than a dozen elderly residents who had congregated in the HPHRC courtyard.
“Pransky has broken down so many barriers,” Durham said. “She’s a conversation piece.”
Durham continues to be amazed at the smiles that adorn residents’ faces at first sight of Halpern and her faithful companion.
“They make people happy,” Durham said. “If (Halpern) has to miss a week because of other commitments, they are asking — ‘Where’s Sue, where’s Pranny?’ They miss her when she’s not here. I don’t think she even realizes the extent to which she and Pranny are so important to the residents, and how much a part of their lives they have become.”
Halpern had great fun writing the book, which she hopes will give people a sometimes humorous look at public service through the eyes of a four-legged friend. There are also stories of love, charity, hope and determination that the author hopes readers will find gratifying and fulfilling.
“I think the book gives you a vacation from your life when you’re reading it,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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