Kevin Riordan: Dog visits sharpen fading memories
Elise Hanners' memory flickers and sometimes goes out, leaving her in the dark. But the 90-year-old's face lights up when she holds a sleek little Boston terrier in her lap.
Elise Hanners' memory flickers and sometimes goes out, leaving her in the dark.
But the 90-year-old's face lights up when she holds a sleek little Boston terrier in her lap.
"This is Otis," says Michelle Bryson, co-owner of Camp Bow Wow, a canine day-care and boarding facility in Cherry Hill.
"Otis? Otis," repeats Hanners. "Does he belong to somebody?"
For the next half-hour, Otis - a shy one-year-old from Haddonfield - belongs to her, and she to him.
"Look, look, look at this," Hanners says, pointing to the quivering little body.
"He's shaking," she adds before asking him, "Do you want to get down and run around?"
Hanners grew up talking to Bostons. Her Pennsauken family raised and sold them.
"I cried every time somebody came and bought one," she says, unspooling a favorite yarn.
"I always went to visit them, to make sure they had a good home. One man said his wife treated the dog better than him. I told him, maybe she had a reason."
Long widowed, Hanners has assistance that enables her to live in her childhood home. Stacey Williams, a family friend and dog lover from Collingswood, initiated the weekly Camp Bow Wow visits about a year ago.
"Elise gets excited when I tell her we're coming," Williams, 47, says. "She just really looks forward to it, and we always have to bring something for the people who work here, because they're so nice.
"We missed a couple weeks, and she said, 'They're going to wonder where we are.' "
I know what it's like to witness loved ones losing memories, and themselves.
Whatever still evokes a recollection - a photograph, a song, a sleek little bundle of Boston terrier - can offer a respite from the relentless fog.
For a moment, the person who was once again . . . is.
"And who are you?" Hanners coos to Otis.
She strokes the top of his trembling head and both sides of his neck with soothing precision.
A look resembling bliss takes the place of the bewildered expression on the terrier's face. His ears soften, and he begins to regard the little waiting area at Camp Bow Wow with wide-eyed equanimity.
Hanners hasn't lost her touch.
"He's handsome," she says. "I can't judge. . . . How old is he? They don't get that big."
Bryson and co-owner Heidi Duffy allow several more small dogs into the room as this party - clearly, a labor of love for them - gets started.
Everyone, including the dogs, has a blast. Hanners beams and keeps Otis close, blowing little kisses on the top of his head.
"Bostons are just very special animals," she explains. "And they're great to train."
Bryson and Duffy, who care for upward of 100 dogs a day, treasure Hanners' visits.
"Elise can't take care of a dog anymore, so it's almost like therapy for her," Williams says. "It enriches her life."
Adds Bryson: "Seeing her with the dogs just warms your heart, to see how happy she is."
Sitting in a swarm of wagging tails, Hanners has her own words for it.
"Dog heaven. Dog heaven," she says. "I'm in dog heaven."
For video of Elise Hanners at Camp Bow Wow, go to