A FOUR-LEGGED THERAPIST: Carmen is a very sweet dog belonging to Chestnut Hill advertising agency executive Debra Malinics, who always takes Carmen along when visiting her 91-year-old mother, Stella, in an area nursing home. Debra says her mom is only interested in seeing Carmen and that Debra is at the nursing home “simply because I drive, and Carmen does not.”

by Debra Malinics

I have begun to qualify my weekly visits to my elderly mother, Stella, as “cracker visits” — a two-cracker visit or a three- cracker visit. I will explain. My mother is 91. She moves slowly. Anyone who is 91, however, has earned the right to move as slowly as she likes. My mother is also hard of hearing but refuses to acknowledge that she has a hearing problem and refuses to wear a hearing aid.

On my visits, I take our dog, Carmen. Frankly, my mother is only interested in Carmen, and I am simply there because I drive and Carmen does not. My mother loves Carmen, and Carmen loves my mother because my mother gives her crackers, lots of crackers … which my mom stockpiles from her meals. Medical costs these days may be influenced by health care issues as well as the cost of cracker supplies.

My mother keeps her cracker stockpile in her closet. My mother likes to “save” and “store.” It’s an exercise regime we have probably all experienced with aging relatives — the save-and-store gene kicks in, and it happens — bread in the napkin, the roll in the purse, the sugar packets in the pocket. In my mother’s closet, there are enough crackers to keep Carmen happy for the rest of her life and enough sugar packets to take Hershey’s candy bars to a new level of sweetness.

On a typical day, Carmen and I arrive around 4 or 4:15. The room is always about 120 to 135 degrees. I open the door to her room, and there is a blast of hot air that melts the makeup off my face and causes me to go into an instant sweat. Carmen starts to pant, and I yell, “Mom, mom, it’s so hot in here,” and she wakes up and says, “What, what?” I scream that it’s hot, hot, and she says “I ought to do what, what?” I fling open the patio door and gasp for air.

Carmen has passed out on the floor. I take her outside and revive her while I push cold air into the room as fast as possible while my mother yells, “Close the door, close the door, it’s cold in here,” but I know she’s been sitting and can’t get out of her chair quickly, so I have five minutes, maybe a bit more, before she comes after me. I keep the door open as long as possible. It’s my life or hers at this point.

When the room is a little better temperature-wise, my mother is standing, ready to grab her walker and close the door herself if that’s what it takes, but I beat her to it. I close the door, and I’m getting Carmen some water. When my mother sees Carmen, she immediately gets a big smile on her face and goes right into her cracker talk. “Carmen, did you come to see grandma today? Yes you did, you came to see grandma. Grandma loves you, yes she does.” Then grandma says the magic words. “Does Carmen want a cracker?” Though this phrase might be attributed more to parrots, it seems to work just as well with canines. “Yes, Carmen, grandma has a cracker for you, yes she does,” my mother continues while Carmen continues drooling from all the cracker talk. My mother ignores me.

My mother is slowly making her way to the closet and the cracker stash, which is about 10 feet from the chair. She moves slowly towards the closet door, with Carmen following. When my mother gets to the closet, about 10 minutes have elapsed. She opens the closet and continues her conversation with Carmen. “Do you want a cracker? Grandma has a cracker for Carmen, yes she does.” She then takes a cracker from the container and tries to open it, but can’t.

Carmen is getting a stiff neck from holding her head up in a cracker receivership position. I say, “Mom, do you want me to help you open that?” No response. I say it louder. I scream it. Slowly, my mother looks up. “What?” she asks. “I can open it,” I scream. “I can do it,” she answers defiantly. Five minutes later she is still “doing it” and not too successfully. My mother looks at Carmen, who has not budged since she arrived at the closet door. “Grandma can’t get this cracker package open,” she says to Carmen, and then adds, “Grandma needs to get her scissors.” The scissors happen to be in the desk, which is across the room, about 12 feet from the closet. My mother begins walking to the desk. “I’ll get them,” I shout, and she says. “What?” I say it louder, and she ignores me. She moves towards the desk, a woman on a mission. I sigh and read another chapter of her Reader’s Digest while she makes the journey across the room. I can only hope the scissors are in the drawer. She reaches the desk, and voila! She gets the scissors and cuts the cracker wrapper open! I want to break out the champagne and throw confetti. It’s the little things in life that create pure joy.

Carmen took a break during the trip and is at the water dish lapping up some liquid, but stops when she sees grandma approaching the closet again. Time lapse, 24 minutes and counting. Carmen is now totally focused on the cracker that is slowly slipping out of its wrapper and she assumes her position at the closet….head up, tail wagging, waiting patiently for grandma to return.

Back at the closet, my mother asks Carmen, “Do you want a cracker?” and Carmen, with her infinite patience, whines. The crackers slip out of the package and go down Carmen’s throat in under one second. The second one goes down equally as fast. “Not so fast, Carmen, not so fast,” my mother advises. “Eat them slowly.” My mother smiles at Carmen, not realizing the dog could have starved to death in this time frame.

After two rounds of crackers, I check the time. Almost an hour has passed. If I want to finish whatever I am reading, I can go for a third cracker, but usually, I look at my watch and exclaim, “Oh my, look at the time, we’ve got to go!” Only once have I made it to four crackers. I was reading a very interesting story!

After farewell kisses, pats on Carmen’s head and endearing words to return soon — to Carmen, not me — Carmen and I depart for home. As I enter my house, my husband asks, ”How was the visit?” I say, “It was a two-cracker visit,” and he nods with complete understanding.

Chestnut Hill resident Debra Malinics and her sisters and, of course, Carmen, visit their mother regularly, gaining insights and understanding of aging as well as expanding their worldly knowledge through the pages of Reader’s Digest. Debra is the owner of Debra Malinics Advertising, a strategic communications firm in center city. More information at www.dma-adv.com