By KATHLEEN NELSON
Mercy Health–Oakwood Village Senior Living in Springfield, Ohio, already was pet-friendly. The addition of a dog park has made the community pet-friendlier.
In this pre-pandemic photo, Paul Hagelberg, his wife, Ursula Weddell, and Schatzi, a Pekinese-teacup terrier mix, enjoy the dog park at Mercy Health – Oakwood Village in Springfield, Ohio. The pet-friendly senior living center opened the wheelchair-accessible park so residents could socialize as they exercise their dogs. Staff bring their pets too.
"As a pet owner myself, I'm excited to find a way to make Oakwood Village a more comfortable place to live for an active senior," said Cheryl Hainey, gift officer for the Mercy Health Foundation of Clark and Champaign counties.
Hainey hatched the idea on a chilly day last fall, when she saw a resident of Oakwood Village walking her dog. The woman was bundled up in a heavy coat, trudging along with a walker and her dog on a leash.
"We consider ourselves a pet-friendly community," Hainey said of the 72-acre campus, 20 miles northeast of Dayton, that offers independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. "That didn't look friendly, and it didn't look safe."
During the opening day festivities which included treats for pets and people, dogs line up to enter the dog park at Mercy Health – Oakwood Village. Post-pandemic plans call for puppy playdates and dog-agility training.
She realized that of the 168 residents in the independent living units, about 30 owned pets and faced a similar dilemma. She also was familiar with a study from the University of Rochester Medical Center that seniors living with a pet are more likely to feel socially connected. She wanted to make the facility more attractive to potential residents who were pet owners and make it easier for current residents to keep pets. Her research indicated that a handful of senior communities in Ohio had built dog parks. She then polled the residents at Oakwood, who were enthusiastic about the idea.
Within a few weeks, Hainey secured the $6,000 in construction costs through donations from Best Friends Assisted Pet Therapy, Fulton's Finest 4H Club, residents and friends of Oakwood Village, and a grant from the Kenneth A. Scott Charitable Trust.
Construction progressed quickly. The 2,900-square-foot courtyard is surrounded on three sides by housing for assisted-living residents; the fourth was enclosed with a chain-link fence that includes a gate large enough to accommodate wheelchairs and scooters. The park also is accessible from an interior corridor, which required construction of a pet safety gate at that entrance. Money raised for the park also paid for waste stations, landscaping, benches for the residents and a teeter-totter and agility poles for the dogs.
The park opened in December 2019. Despite the relative cold of an Ohio winter, residents used the park not only to let their dogs run free, but as a place to socialize with other residents and family visitors.
Among the enthusiastic residents are Ursula Weddell, 77, her husband, Paul Hagelberg, 87, and Schatzi, their 4-pound Pekingese-teacup terrier mix. Normally, they just roam the halls, heading outside only briefly — with Schatzi always on leash. On his first visit to the park, "Schatzi didn't know what to do when he got off the leash," Weddell said. "He acted strange, a little lost, then he ran around and was happy. It was funny but good to see."
Staff members also started to bring their dogs to the park, as did families of the residents, who used the park as a space to hang out together. "I could see the residents looking out the windows (from their assisted living apartments) and thought that watching the dogs could bring joy to them too," she said.
Patricia Rodriguez, a dog trainer in Springfield, volunteered to host a pet etiquette clinic for residents. Best Friends Assisted Pet Therapy and the 4H club planned trainings and visits from other adoptable pets.
"The residents enjoyed the visits from the pets," Hainey said. "We were just getting started."
But just as the weather was about to turn warmer, making the park even more useful, COVID-19 forced residents into virtual lockdown. Rodriguez's plans for dog agility training and puppy playdates were put on hold. To comply with local restrictions, residents use the park just one or two at a time and maintain social distance.
Despite restricted use because of the pandemic, the park has fulfilled its main goal, making pet ownership easier, safer
and more comfortable for current and future residents. "This is another reason to keep pets and their owners together," Hainey said. "They don't feel like they have to rehome their pets and that makes their lives fuller. The park gives them a way to exercise and socialize in a safer environment."
Weddell, Hagelberg and Schatzi continue to walk the halls, making friends with other residents, and venture outside for a short stroll on the sidewalk but can't wait until restrictions are loosened. "We'll be back to the park," Weddell said. "It was wonderful to see my dog jumping around. It's a nice place to socialize, and we want to use it. It's an excuse to get out even more."
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