Issue 6 Stories

Jimmy's Pet Pals

Lifelike Companion Pets Help Soothe Patients Suffering with Alzheimer's, Dementia

James “Jimmy” Nespeco spent much of the last few weeks of his life receiving treatment for a broken hip at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, and later transitioned to hospice care. During his hospital stay, his Alzheimer’s disease contributed to behaviors such as anxiety, paranoia, agitation and combativeness, presenting challenges for caregivers, according to his daughter, Abby Denby, who is also director of patient care services at Sentara Martha Jefferson. Due to Nespeco’s condition, his nurses experienced difficulties in providing basic care, such as repositioning him in bed or administering medications.

One evening when Nespeco was particularly restless and belligerent, his doctor ordered medication to calm him. Before he could be given the medication, however, his ex-wife, Susan, brought her dog in to see Nespeco in an effort to soothe him, since he had always loved animals so much. The dog calmed him immediately. Since the real dog couldn’t remain with Nespeco at all times, the family decided to purchase a robotic companion dog as a substitute with which, hopefully, he would bond. The realistic, interactive robotic golden retriever puppy was presented to Nespeco a few days later, thankfully and almost immediately providing the same calming influence as the real dog.

“My dad always loved animals—especially dogs,” Denby says. “This robotic dog is so realistic, and it made all the difference. Whenever he was holding the dog, he was calmer, much friendlier and more docile.”

The puppy, a “Joy for All Companion Pet” by Hasbro, is a lifelike, interactive animal that features a soothing “heartbeat,” wags its tail, barks, and responds to touch and motion. The company also makes interactive robotic cats.

During her father’s hospital stay, Denby began pursuing avenues to bring the robotic companion pets to more patients at Sentara Martha Jefferson. She presented her idea to the Patient Family Advisory Council (PFAC), sharing with the group a video of her father holding, kissing and talking to the pup. PFAC immediately endorsed the idea as an enhancement to the Caring Tradition environment that prevails throughout the hospital.

Intrigued by the concept, PFAC member Susie Morris offered to fund the program. A leadership donor for Sentara Martha Jefferson’s Palliative Care Program, Morris feels like the Companion Pet Program ties in with her interest in palliative care—an approach that focuses on providing holistic care for patients with serious illnesses, with the goal of improving quality of life for them and their families.

“It tugged at my heart,” says Morris, who is also a patient support volunteer at the hospital. “This robotic dog gave Abby’s father so much comfort. I could see what a great opportunity it was to provide additional support for patients suffering from dementia or other types of distress.”

The pilot program will begin in spring 2018, with the goal of providing a pet companion to patients who might benefit from lifelike animal companionship. The focus will be on patients who have Alzheimer’s or dementia, are agitated or combative due to cognitive impairment, and for whom no other comfort measures have been successful. When the patient leaves the hospital, they may take their animal companion home.

“I wanted to get this program started at Sentara Martha Jefferson when I saw how my father responded to this dog,” says Denby. “We have a number of nonmedical comfort therapies to offer, but those options don’t work for all patients.”

The interactive pets also help to ease stress levels for nurses, doctors and other providers caring for these patients.

“The hospital staff often faces difficult situations in which a patient is showing signs of anxiety and is becoming combative,” Denby notes. “It’s not a good feeling as a healthcare provider when you can’t make a difference for a patient who is struggling. Being able to give patients a sense of peace and companionship through these pets hopefully will have a great impact on the staff and allow them to give patients the care they need.”

For Morris, the Companion Pet Program is another way to give back to the community and enhance the outstanding services provided at Sentara Martha Jefferson.

“As a patient support volunteer, it means so much to me to be able to help our patients and their families,” Morris says. “This is just another way to ensure that they have the best care possible.”

 James “Jimmy” Nespeco, March 26, 1941–Sept. 26, 2017

The Sentara Martha Jefferson Companion Pet Program was named “Jimmy’s Pet Pals” in memory of Abby Denby’s father. His love and compassion for his real-life dogs over the years brought him much joy, and in his passing his family hopes that the Companion Pet Program will bring comfort to highly distressed patients at Sentara Martha Jefferson. Family, friends and generous community members have contributed toward the program, which depends solely on philanthropic gifts for ongoing support. If you would like to make a gift toward this program, please visit or call Lauri Wilson at the Martha Jefferson Hospital Foundation at (434) 654-8173.

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Jimmy's Pet Pals

Lifelike Companion Pets Help Soothe Patients Suffering with Alzheimer's, Dementia

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