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Jan Lougal—and her dog, Pepper—are prepared for the holiday season at the East Haven senior center. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Jan Lougal carries the title of director of East Haven’s senior center, but she and her dog Pepper are both longtime professional caregivers.
“When people come in here…they don’t come in looking for me. They come in looking for Pepper,” Jan says. “She is everybody’s pet.”
It was Jan’s late husband, Peter, who wanted Pepper when they first adopted her.
“It turned out she really became his therapy dog. We decided to have her trained,” Jan says. “Her personality was just so good.”
They hired a trainer for Pepper specifically to be a therapy dog after they recognized that she had the temperament for it.
“A service dog you’re not supposed to pet or disturb because they’re for that patient or owner. [Pepper] is for everybody to enjoy,” she says. “The people just love her and that’s her job.”
Pepper’s therapy training and her natural intelligence have made her an excellent asset for the senior center. Jan says Pepper is smart enough to know if they’ve gotten a different mailman, even if she’s on the other side of the building.
But mostly, Pepper is great for emotional support.
“She knows what person needs more than the other,” Jan says.
As a notary public, Jan often visits seniors in their homes or at hospice to perform her duties. She’ll often bring Pepper along and she’ll sit with them to be pet.
“People get comfort from that,” Jan says. “They get enjoyment just from petting her.”
Wherever she is, Pepper is a popular feature at the senior center. Members of the community there will often bring her special treats and offer to take her outside.
“This is her home,” Jan says. “She turned out to be more than I expected.”
For all Pepper’s accomplishments, Jan has seniority over her. Jan will have been in the director’s chair for 33 years in January. Pepper has only been volunteering at the senior center for five.
“I kind of say I grew up here,” Jan says.
Before Jan came to the senior center, she was a nurse’s aide considering a hospice job. Before that, she was a kid who spent more time with her grandparents than most kids would.
“When I was a child, I had elderly neighbors on both sides of me and I think that’s probably when I really started loving the elderly. I used to go visit them every day rather than going out to play with kids,” Jan says.
She tries to bring kids into the senior center. Often this will include younger kids coming through to perform or high school volunteers serving food. Jan says it’s good for the kids to learn from the elderly.
“I love the seniors. When I started here I wasn’t one and now I am,” Jan says. “Being able to help people was my main objective.”
Being the director of the senior center is a different sort of job than those she worked before coming to the position. And a lot has changed over the years.
“The dynamics of your senior have changed drastically over the past 10 years,” Jan says. “Your seniors of today are either traveling, babysitting, or still working.”
The senior center is still busy throughout the week, serving 40 to 50 seniors throughout the day with a variety of programs. But fewer come than they used to because seniors stay busy these days. Now, seniors will come for one activity or another and then leave.
Though things have changed, it’s opened up new opportunities for programming.
“Years ago, I couldn’t have tai chi. They were too elderly,” Jan notes, “but now our tai chi is enormous.”
The center also has the regular staples of Bingo and a lunch program for seniors 60 and over.
With the holidays coming up, the senior center will host its Christmas party on Friday, Dec. 21 featuring food and a performance from the Boogie Boys.
The senior center is also partnered with Home Instead, which solicits gifts for seniors from the community to be later wrapped and delivered. Jan and her staff compile needs for some of their seniors and hang them on the center’s Christmas tree.
Seniors and members of the community can stop by, pick up a gift list from the tree, and return the purchased or crafted gifts to the center. Home Instead will wrap them and prepare them for delivery.
“I’ve already had three or four of my people make blankets brand new,” Jan says. “The gentlemen will come and pick them up…If there’s anybody from our center that gets a gift, [they’ll] bring them here and we deliver them.”
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