Bettina Dickson Rusher’s spacious living room, like most homes, has a shelf lined with pictures of family and loved ones.
What’s out of the ordinary is the nearly tattered stuffed cat lying near a picture of Rusher’s late mother.
“This is Caldonia,” Rusher said, grabbing the cat. “That’s how much (my mother) held that thing.”
Caldonia served as a source of comfort for Rusher’s mother, Betty Dickson, in the months before she died of Alzheimer’s in 2010. As her mother’s memory and motor skills deteriorated, her love for Caldonia never changed.
The stuffed cat sits near a picture of Dickson as a reminder of how Memorable Pets began. It’s a business Rusher and her sister, Frances Dickson, started in 2011 to bring comfort to Alzheimer’s patients like their late mother.
Through Memorable Pets, people can purchase a lap-size stuffed dog or cat for an Alzheimer’s patient to care for.
“There is nobody doing stuffed animals as therapeutic tools for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Rusher said. “We are the first.”
Rusher’s sister bought a stuffed cat for their mother in the fall of 2010. After Betty Dickson’s condition worsened, she was moved to the Alzheimer’s unit at Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore and was forced to give up her real cat, Caldonia.
“We gave (the stuffed animal) to my mom, and she looked at it and said, ‘That’s artificial,’ and we said, ‘Well, yes, but isn’t she soft and pretty?’ and she put it down and petted it,” Rusher said.
“I visited her three days later and she was carrying it around with her everywhere, talking to it, and the nurses were just amazed. So that’s how it all started.”
The sisters were surprised at how well their mother took to her new “cat.” Whenever they visited, Dickson was clutching Caldonia, and the sisters even bought her a replacement. Their mother was always willing to talk about Caldonia.
A nurse at the veterans center, wanting to help a veteran who had also lost his pet cat, asked the sisters where she could get a stuffed animal for him.
That led to the sisters buying several more stuffed animals for other Alzheimer’s patients in their mother’s wing. Rusher said the patients loved them, and the nurses noticed those with stuffed animals seemed calmer and less agitated than the others.
That gave the women an idea. After research, they discovered animals and even toy dolls have a calming effect on Alzheimer’s patients, but they didn’t find much relating to stuffed animals.
The sisters looked for a stuffed animal supplier, gathering research and consulting with nurses and geriatric professionals to make sure they picked the perfect pet. Finally, in May 2011, they launched MemorablePets.com, and their business took off.
The website includes several personal stories and testimonials from those who gave their loved ones a Memorable Pet and from medical professionals who praise the sisters’ ingenuity.
“I love this product and wonder why we have not had something like it available long before now!” reads a statement from Paula Taliaferro, an education consultant with the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging and a support group facilitator for the Central Ohio Alzheimer’s Association.
“... I have already told my family that if I develop a memory disorder, I want them to put a Memorable Pet on my lap and have a back up in the closet – preferably a black lab. What a great idea!”
There are more than 20 varieties of dogs and cats available on the website. Each pets sells for $29.99, and $2 from every sale goes toward Alzheimer’s research.
Shipping is free for 1-2 pets, and Rusher encourages people to buy two Memorable Pets to either donate the spare or to help families with young children understand Alzheimer’s.
“The grandchild can have the same pet as their grandmother, and then when they visit, they have that conversation piece,” Rusher said. “Little kids have a hard time relating to people with Alzheimer’s.”
Those who don’t know anyone with Alzheimer’s but want to help can contribute through the website’s Pets 2 People program. A person, organization or business can purchase a Memorable Pet, and Rusher will match it with a patient.
Rusher’s sister, who lives in California, manages the website, while Rusher buys, ships and packages the animals from a small loft (“the warehouse,” she calls it) at her home just over the Woodford County line.
Rusher frequently recruits her family for help with packaging. By day, Rusher works in sales for a flooring company that specializes in healthcare facilities, so she uses her nights and weekends to work on Memorable Pets.
When Dickson passed in September 2010, she was holding Caldonia. The sisters buried her with her beloved pet, and Rusher kept the second stuffed animal. Her mother’s intense love for Caldonia in her last few months inspires Rusher to keep improving Memorable Pets and get the word out.
“When my mom was dying, like the last four months of her life, I was putting all my energy into Memorable Pets to deal with my grief. I wanted something positive to come out of it,” Rusher said.
“… I really feel like it’s the most important work I’m going to do in my whole life.”
As word spreads, Rusher is sought as a speaker at health seminars or charitable organizations about Memorable Pets. She said her table of stuffed animals caused quite a stir at the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry conference when she appeared there in March in Washington, D.C.
“My neighbors were like, ‘We want to be next to her every time because these (animals) just draw attention,’” Rusher said with a laugh. “I got so much positive feedback from the doctors, the psychiatrists and the nurses that what we were doing was right on.”
Since launching last spring, she estimates they’ve sold about 700 pets, but she hopes that number grows.
Even if the business doesn’t take off, Rusher says she’s not in it for money or glory, which may explain why she keeps a tattered stuffed animal in her living room.
“We’re really in it just to have something to do to help people and hopefully raise money for a cure,” Rusher said. “If we only sell a thousand pets, we’re successful – we’ve helped a thousand people.”
Website: www.memorablepets.com; each pet costs $29.99, and shipping is free for orders of 1-2 pets. They arrive within 10 days.