WHEATON – Wheaton-based nonprofit ESSE Adult Day Services played host to police officer Jill Uhlir and her miniature therapy horse, Tinkerbell, on Aug. 5 at its St. Paul Lutheran Church location.
Uhlir is the police department's elderly service officer, and reaches out to the city's older population as a point of contact.
"I'm trying to be a repetitive, standard, trusting contact for them," she said. "A lot of seniors are protective and don't want to share ... but they tell me stuff, sometimes stuff they're too embarrassed to tell their kids. I help them do whatever needs to be done."
Her visits to area communities and nonprofits with the 28-inch tall, 140-pound Tinkerbell are strictly volunteer work, she said.
"It's hard to bring a horse into the police department," she joked.
The use of therapy animals can have a wide range of applications, according to Uhlir, from building trust as a bonding exercise for young people to bringing a sense of calm and rekindling sparks of fond memories for older ones.
That is especially valuable for ESSE's population, said program Executive Director Cathy Davit. Many of its 170 attendees have some form of dementia.
All require a certain degree of care, she said, whether they suffer from Alzheimer's, a stroke or a physical disability.
ESSE offers help to the spouses, children and others who may be holding down a full-time job or just need a break.
"A big part of it is just respite for the caregivers," said Program Director Nancie Barry. "They just desperately need it ... it's very wearing."
A full-day program includes breakfast, lunch and a variety of games and activities for individual ability levels. ESSE also provides a monthly support group for member caregivers.
It has proven to be popular – after its original founding in 1982 at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, it has expanded to locations in Wheaton, Warrenville and Gurnee. Currently, 34 churches help host and financially support its mission. Several Lake County churches have asked the nonprofit to expand its operations again into Antioch.
Uhlir said her first time visiting was wonderful and the members were receptive to petting and talking to Tinkerbell.
"It brought a bright smile to people's faces that don't always have a whole lot to look forward to," she said. "She's something different and charming. You can't look at her and not be happy and smile – it's a momentary release."
She said programs like ESSE are invaluable, particularly because nearly 50 percent of the people who attend require state monetary assistance to afford it.
"It gives a regular caretaker a bit of relief – constant need and constant draw really drains on a person's ability to be sympathetic to the person's pain," she said. "Even with kids, you can get so drained that you get snippy, short or angry. Even a few hours can work wonders and give a chance to decompress. And for the seniors, it helps them not think about the pain they might be in."
For more information on ESSE Adult Day Care and its other locations, visit www.esseadultdaycare.org.
ESSE Adult Day Care's 18th annual Pancake Breakfast will be held from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Nov. 8 at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 515 S. Wheaton Ave. Tickets will be available for $5.