Meet the West Seattle “shop cats” of Providence Mount St. Vincent

Tomorrow at 10:30 am, Providence Mount St. Vincent hosts the first of three “Blessing of the Animals” events scheduled for West Seattle this weekend. In honor of that, our occasional series of stories about West Seattle “shop cats” returns with the tale of the cats at The Mount:

By Keri DeTore
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

Fifteen years ago, when the assisted-living (and more) center known to West Seattleites as “The Mount” underwent a major philosophical shift from a “medical model” to a “social model,” it instilled some major changes: Nurses stopped wearing starched uniforms and switched to regular clothes; strict waking and sleeping schedules were abolished; cheerful dayrooms were built — and a cat moved in.

Nurse Manager Brenda Jennings, who has seen many changes at The Mount over the past 30 years, says that the new watermark for staff and clients was to see The Mount as home. Residents are not seen as “sick people” — they are essentially well, but with chronic conditions; they are allowed to direct their own care and be more independent. Cats have become an important part of that home culture.

The Mount has five different units which are known as “neighborhoods” and each neighborhood has its own cat.

Often, a cat will choose a particular resident or room as Home Base, but they essentially belong to the entire neighborhood.

Baxter (aka: Cat-and-a-Half) is an enormous 20+ pound, 3-legged cat who was snoozing in one of the rooms on his rotation–every few weeks he finds different rooms to nap in. According to Brenda Jennings, having only 3 legs “doesn’t slow him down a bit—he climbs to the top of the aviary!” Baxter has been at The Mount for about six years, but a couple of years ago he nearly had to move out. When his favorite resident passed away, Baxter became cantankerous and combative.

When it became known that his days at The Mount were numbered, two gentlemen in residence took action — and hid Baxter in their rooms for two weeks. When they were discovered, they insisted that Baxter had become “very good”! Luckily for Baxter, and his neighborhood, he was allowed to stay and continue heavily napping on chairs.

Buckwheat is an internationally-famous hospice cat. He had become known for staying with, and comforting residents who were in their last days of life. A piece done by a local news crew about him was aired globally, and a family watching in Germany did a double-take when the woman they saw with Buckwheat looked like their Aunt Matilda — because it WAS their Aunt Matilda!

“Tilly,” as she is known at The Mount, is Buckwheat’s special friend, and as you can see by the generous stash of cat food in Tilly’s room, the feeling is mutual: “He adopted me. We’ve become good friends.”

One of Brenda Jennings’ favorite memories is rounding the corner into a resident’s room and seeing Buckwheat’s rear end hanging out of an open bag of cat food that had been left on the floor. After many years of caring for others, it’s now Buckwheat’s turn to be taken care of; with failing health, Buckwheat is being given the special care and attention that he has so generously lavished on others.

Buckwheat’s “girlfriend” is Sunshine, a sweet-faced middle-aged cat who spends a lot of time cruising the neighborhood and checking in with her residents. Lately, Sunshine has been staying close to Buckwheat as his health declines. Like many at that age, Sunshine was fighting a bit of middle-age spread, so the staff gave her an automatic feeder that dispensed only a certain amount of food at a time. Brenda says: “It didn’t make any difference. What good is a timed feeder if all the residents are constantly slipping them treats?” Sunshine loves affection, but she makes you work for it. In order to give her a scratch behind the ears, you have to go to her — and she knows you will.

Frank, on the other hand, will track you down for a good belly rub, such as the one Brenda is giving him in the photo. She calls him the “Wal-Mart Greeter” because he positions himself near the door and elevator to get attention from all the visitors to his neighborhood. He’ll come when called — because that means someone wants to give him attention — and he’s very curious.

Three years ago, he almost became a cliché: His curiosity nearly killed him when he climbed into the mechanics of a hospital bed and got jammed in when the bed was operated. Brenda says they had a heck of a time getting him out and he was fine, just “a little flattened.” Frank faced a different kind of threat a few years ago when he developed a thyroid problem. The cost of his treatment was more than The Mount could afford, and they thought they’d have to put him down. Recognizing how important Frank was to The Mount, several families of the residents came together and donated the cost of treatment.

Typical of cats, Callie decided not to show for photos. Callie is more of a homebody and stays with her two roommates most of the time rather than roam the halls.

The Mount maintains a cat-free floor on the third floor of the center for people with allergies and anti-cat leanings. The chapel is on the main floor, and after one cat was busted via videotape for sleeping on the altar, the staff decided to keep the whole floor free of unrepentant felines.

The cats provide a source of unconditional acceptance and normalcy at a time when someone’s world is turning upside-down. For residents with moderate dementia, who can’t interact as well as they used to, a cat becomes “a real buddy.” Further, the cats are touchstones for the staff too — note the cat treats that share shelf space with medical reference books:

Says Brenda Jennings: “The kitties give comfort to staff as well as residents and families. Jobs here have very challenging moments, and there is nothing like kitty love when you think you just can’t go any further.”

To see our archive of previous “shop cat” stories on WSB (and a few “shop dogs,” go here.

4 Replies to "Meet the West Seattle "shop cats" of Providence Mount St. Vincent"

  • WSEvelyn October 2, 2009 (7:01 pm)

    Mount St. Vincent’s never fazes to amaze me in so many positive ways! Cats make wonderful and relatively low maintenance companions. What a win-win situation for the residents. And for the cats!

  • Kris October 2, 2009 (8:44 pm)

    What a beautiful story – thank you for sharing :)

  • coffee October 3, 2009 (7:59 am)

    How cool is this! I think its so wonderful that care for the elderly has done such a turn and continues to improve all the time! Great story.

  • Catherine October 3, 2009 (10:26 am)

    That’s fabulous! Thanks for this story, those kitties are adorable. Love Baxter!

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