MECHANICSVILLE, VIRGINIA – Shirley Johnson has been at Hanover Health and Rehabilitation Center for just about three weeks. She hurt herself during a bad fall but is getting back into shape with therapy and a special friend.
“You giving Miss Johnson a workout, girl. Thank you,” she laughs, as she’s petting Nala.
Nala is a therapy cat who has been a volunteer at various healthcare facilities for nine years. The 18-pound Maine Coon strolls down the hallways on a leash, greeting absolutely everyone she meets with a meow. She’s a gentle presence during otherwise rigorous physical therapy sessions.
“Her most famous stories are helping to people get up and use their walker when they’re telling the therapist no,” her trainer Sonja Lazear says proudly. “She’s done that twice now, helping people to walk.”
Lazear rescued Nala, who as named after The Lion King character, and soon realized the pretty kitty was quite a social butterfly who was not her best at home.
“Getting into cupboards, drinking out of the toilet, picking things out of the wastebasket,” Lazear describes. “Bored, bored, bored, so I said, ‘Nala, you need a job.’”
She started harness and leash training and then went on to get certified as a therapy cat.
There is always a huge reaction when people see her walking down the hallways on her leash.
“Everybody thinks she’s a dog,” Lazear chuckles. “They say, ‘Nice Shih Tzu,’ and I say, ‘Where?’”
Nala snuggles up to everyone she meets and greets them with a meow.
“It just brightened my day when I saw her!” Johnson exclaims.
During this particular Occupational Therapy session, she is sitting next to Johnson.
“Keep going, stretch those muscles,” Occupational Therapist Lisa Borcheller encourages Johnson to reach for Nala.
Exercises like these can be very monotonous but not when there is a sweet and soft reward at the end.
“They’re not looking at their diagnosis, they’re not looking at their deficits or the weaknesses. They’re just there to give love and affection and be present with the person,” explains Borcheller. “I think that goes such a long way.”
Borcheller says Nala helps patients with arthritis stretch out their hands more as they try to pet her. There’s also plenty of research that supports therapy animals like her can drastically improve symptoms of depression and high blood pressure. Patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia are much more likely to socialize when they are in a facility.
Now 13, Nala has been a therapy cat now for nine years.
“I couldn’t have done it without you, Darling, you know that?” Johnson squeezes Nala affectionately after her final exercises.
She has touched countless lives with her gift.
“She’s calm, she’s cuddly. She’s very charming,” Johnson smiles.