VERSAILLES — Betty Dickson loved her cat Caldonia.
She loved the cat so much that as Alzheimer's disease sapped her mind and weakened her body, the stuffed version of Caldonia that her daughters gave her became her constant companion. Caldonia was with Dickson when she died, as one of her daughters held her hand. And Caldonia was buried with her.
An earlier version of the stuffed Caldonia still sits in the rural Woodford County living room of Dickson's daughter Bettina Dickson Rusher. Caldonia, about the size and heft of a Chihuahua, has been washed often and well-loved.
Now Rusher, founder of Memorable Pets, wants other Alzheimer's patients to have the same comfort her mother had, even after she lost her ability to care for a living pet.
Although their minds fail to retain information, Alzheimer's patients still retain a sense for tactile comfort and emotional interaction provided by pets. The Lancet medical journal reported that Alzheimer's patients who visited with pets experienced periods of extended calm, hence the popularity of visiting therapy dogs and other pets at Alzheimer's facilities.
However, the animals don't live on site, as some residents have allergy problems and institutions aren't really set up for kennel care for communal pets.
Rusher saw the benefit her mother got from having a stuffed version of Caldonia, and she wanted others to have the same advantage. Her Memorable Pets company is just getting off the ground, in more ways than one. Its products — an assortment of machine- and surface- washable stuffed animals sturdy and light enough for Alzheimer's patients to adopt and carry — are stored up a set of loft stairs at Rusher's house. The shipping envelopes wait on a wrapping table, along with shipping labels and purple tissue wrapping paper. Purple is the Alzheimer's color, just as pink is associated with breast cancer.
The company's sales do not yet number in the hundreds, but Rusher hopes it will expand to the thousands. Memorable Pets' "Pets to People" organization offers a service under which a company or charity may buy and donate the company's "pets" to Alzheimer's care facilities.
Rusher's mother was not wild about her stuffed cat initially.
"It's artificial," said her mother, who had kept a series of cats, always called Caldonia, before she contracted Alzheimer's and during her early stages of the disease.
After a week, though, Rusher noticed her mother had started carrying her "pet" everywhere. Rusher was asked if she could get a big, fluffy gray cat for a new resident at her mother's facility who had to give up his pet.
But, Rusher said, "There was no company we could find marketing stuffed animals to the Alzheimer's community."
Hence Memorable Pets was begun.
Why should you buy Rusher's animals, instead of just raiding the toy aisle at the discount store?
Rusher said a portion of sales will go to Alzheimer's research, and her animals are sturdy and light enough to withstand the kind of intense bonding that patients might have with their animals.
They also are available in a variety of colors and breeds, from the schnauzer — the most popular so far — to the curly-tailed pug, black Labrador and orange tabby cat.
"This was a way I could take my energy while my mom was dying and make something positive of it," Rusher said.
Alzheimer's patients, she said, "have a strong need to nurture and care."
Reach Cheryl Truman at (859) 231-3202 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3202, or follow her on Twitter at @CherylTruman.