I've always heard that pets can reach people with Alzheimer's on a level we cannot. But I was not at all prepared for the profound reaction my little puppy was going to bring about during a recent visit to Ruth, an inveterate dog lover.
When I arrived to visit with my itsy bitsy Shih Tzu puppy, Christina, Ruth said, "Oh, my sakes. Isn't she adorable! She's so tiny. Look at that cute little face!"
Ruth laughed when she saw her and had the biggest smile on her face I'd seen in the three months I'd been going to see her.
Christina, ten weeks old and weighing in at just three pounds, hadn't yet had her first haircut and was a little ball of fuzz. Her eyes peeked out from beneath a broad tuft of fur; her tail never stopped wagging. The minute Christina saw Ruth she jumped up on her legs, eagerly begging to be petted. Ruth leaned down and petted Christina energetically
"What's her name?" she asked, laughing again.
"Christina," I said.
"Christina. Oh, my sakes! What a wonderful name for this darling little puppy."
"You can hold her if you want."
"Oh, really?" she asked. "Do you mean you'd actually let me hold her?"
"Sure. Call her over here and pick her up."
"OK. What's her name?"
"Christina," I said again.
Ruth sat down and called out, "Christina, come here."
Christina jumped up and romped over to Ruth, who immediately scooped her up and put her on her lap. Ruth's eyes twinkled; she was absolutely radiant. She playfully ruffled Christina's fur and patted her solidly on her back. As though passing out a reward, Christina planted several wet puppy kisses on Ruth's face. The last one landed squarely on her mouth.
I was mortified and yelled -- more loudly than I'd intended -- "Christina, stop it!"
But Ruth just laughed and said, "Aww. She isn't hurting anything."
Then she said, "Thanks for the picture of her you gave me last time."
She pointed to the wallet-size photo of Christina sitting on her bureau right next to the picture of Annie, Ruth's Labrador who now lives with her son.
"Thank you so much for bringing her. I love her!"
Then we played a game with Christina. Ruth sat in her well-worn easy chair at one end of her room and I stood at the other end just in front of the door.
Ruth clapped her hands and called, "Christina." Christina went racing toward her, then dive-bombed her feet like Babe Ruth sliding into home plate head first.
The second Christina arrived Ruth flung both arms straight up in the air and shouted, "Whee!"
Then I called Christina and she shot back to me like a mighty Hereford in a stampede.
We both laughed so hard we had tears running down our cheeks.
We called Christina back and forth like that for a good five minutes. Each time Christina dive bombed Ruth's feet and Ruth threw up her arms and shouted "Whee!"
Ruth and I would never have tired of it but poor little Christina was worn out and lay down right between us. Then she put her chin on the carpet and simultaneously looked up at Ruth as though to say, "I love you!" I was pretty sure she wanted to be petted again but she was too tuckered out to jump up and beseech us.
"Thank you so much for bringing her," Ruth said for the second time.
Given Ruth's shaky memory, I thought I could probably bring Christina frequently, and every time would be like the first time for Ruth. What a wonderful gift that would be. So much pleasure for Ruth and so easy for me to do.
Finally, and reluctantly, I told Ruth, "I'm sorry lady but I have to leave."
Ruth walked me to the door as I was thinking that after such a vigorous workout, Christina was going to sleep well that night. I kind of thought Ruth would sleep well, too. As so would I. Then we hugged, as always.
"Thank you so much for bringing her," Ruth said for the third time.
Then she added, "This is my best day since I've lived here!"
Marie Marley is the author of the uplifting, award-winning book, "Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy." Her website contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.
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