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'See you soon': Long-term care volunteers want seniors to know they'll be back

Last Updated May 23, 2020 at 12:52 am PDT

Stuart Mah and his dog Nugget volunteering at the Mount Saint Joseph Residence in East Vancouver (Stuart Mah submitted photo)

Stuart Mah and his dog Nugget have been visiting the seniors living at the Mount Saint Joseph Residence for 3 years

Restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic mean the visits are no longer possible, and the pair miss the seniors

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A picture of a man and his dog, both smiling while propping up a hand-written sign that says ‘See you soon’ now hangs on the bulletin board of a residential senior’s care unit in Vancouver.

The man is Stuart Mah and his dog is Nugget, a 95-pound Rottweiler-Shepherd-Labrador cross. The pair have been volunteering at the Mount Saint Joseph Residence every Saturday for almost three years.

Nugget even has his own ID badge.

“The people there just amazingly really grew attached to Nugget. And by the same token, Nugget gets attached to everybody,” Mah says.

“They see the dog, their face changes. It’s just a more relaxed, more happy look on their face. There are elderly people there that have had dogs their whole lives and now they’re in a place where they don’t have dogs. The interaction is therapeutic for them.”

Almost all the residents speak Cantonese. Mah doesn’t, but that doesn’t get in the way of making a connection.

“They smile, and they say things in Chinese which I get interpreted from the caretaker,” Mah says.

“It’s really amazing some of the things that they do say to Nugget. They say ‘What a beautiful dog. How old is he? Does Nugget have any kids? We should get him a wife so he can have some kids.'”

‘I really miss visiting’

Restrictions on visitors due to COVID-19 have put a stop to the weekly visits, which Mah and Nugget enjoy as much as the 100 seniors living on the second floor of the east Vancouver hospital.

Mah’s daughter noticed that he seemed “a bit bummed out” recently.

“She said, ‘How are you feeling? I said, ‘I really miss visiting the residents,'” Mah explains.

“I miss Mrs. Chung, I miss Edith — I know them all by name.”

That’s when he took the picture and sent it along to the volunteer coordinator.

Mah and Nugget pay particular attention to the residents who seem isolated.

“As much as relatives do visit, there are some residents there that never get visited,” Mah explains.

One woman gets a one-on-one visit in her room every Saturday.

“I’ve never seen anybody visit her. Nugget and I go in there and she talks to us in [limited] English, just saying, ‘Nice dog,’ ‘Beautiful,’ ‘Happy.’ These little things just really, really brighten her time there. It just makes me really grateful for having Nugget and being able to give something back to other people — the same happiness that I derive from Nugget.”

Mah feels better knowing the picture he sent in, along with an article in the hospital newsletter, is hanging on the wall so residents can see him and Nugget while they are keeping their distance.

“That really just cut down the hurt. There was a part that was missing from not visiting them. Just knowing that they know I remember them, knowing that my photograph and the article is up on the wall there–hopefully somebody will interpret that and just say: ‘The volunteers, Stuart and Nugget, are really thinking about you guys.'”

He also hopes it will remind everyone that the duo will be back as soon as it’s safe.

“It’s been really tough on us, and I’m sure it’s really tough on the residents, but we know that it’s the right thing to be socially distancing from them until we can volunteer again.”

‘He was just so good with people’

Nugget wasn’t always a big-city dog and his instagram bio describes him as having a “small-town heart.”

He came to the Mah family in 2014 from a farm in Northern BC where he was loved by his humans but had trouble getting along with other farm-dwellers.

“He was kind of a pesky dog and would chase the goats and chickens around. The family, they really took care of him but they had to give him up because of the farm animals,” Mah explains.

But the Mah’s immediately noticed how gentle the big dog was, and how quickly he took to humans.

“The one thing we noticed about Nugget was that he was just so good with people. And that was something that we really wanted to share with other people. Because he just had that temperament,” Mah says.

“Why not take him to a place where people would really enjoy him? Basically, we chose Mount St. Joseph because we felt that the seniors there really would appreciate the dog.”

Nugget received pet therapy training through BC Pets and Friends, and started his Saturday afternoon visits soon after.

As for the dog’s name, the exact origin is unknown, but the Mah family never thought of changing it.

“We loved it. I mean, he’s a huge dog, but I’m sure at one point he was a nugget.”

Mah says having a pet and volunteering have both been critical to his well-being over the years.

“In many respects, you know, I think I really think Nugget and my previous pets have really saved my sanity more than anything else, in terms of being able to give me a release, and just a reason to be really, really happy and really grateful.”