‘Caravan of Joy’ brings smiles to seniors isolated in suburban nursing homes

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BARRINGTON, Ill. — A slow-moving caravan of short, fluffy and extra-long tails paraded around a suburban nursing home Wednesday with no motive other than bringing smiles to those on the other side of the glass.

“As soon as the animals get out of the car or our minivan and we start to put shoes on our miniature horses… of course that’s the time everybody has to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and ‘oh my gosh,’” said Jodi Diegel, the founder of Soul Harbour Ranch Therapy Animals.

Diegel says her small “Joy Caravan” of horses and dogs helps melt the pain of isolation away, if only for a moment.

“The person can put their hand to a paw or a hoof and be able to connect with the glass between them… it doesn’t really matter,” Diegel said. “We’re able to go room-to-room bringing joy, love, laughter, smiles.”

The animals are towed along by Barrington High School apprentices, who are now registered animal handlers.

“I’ve always wanted to do something with therapy animals and when we got fern she was super affectionate so we thought she might make a good therapy dog,” said Lily Budinger, Barrington H.S. Soul Buddies Animal Therapy Club.

Also a full-time nurse, Diegel said she believes healing can be found in both traditional medicine and acts that bring joy to others. 

“We always say that’s the true healing power of the human-animal bond,” Diegel said. “We’re so grateful people are able to connect with our animals despite what’s going on.” 

Alden Estates of Barrington Activity Director Sheri Bass said the visit is even more special during the time of COVID-19, when elderly residents are even more isolated in order to keep them safe from the virus.

“The animals bring them a sense of joy and belonging,” Bass said. “Some of them cry because they’re so happy.”

Diegel and the student handlers from Barrington High School say they plan to continue making window visits as long as this pandemic is part of our lives.

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