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Pet Therapy in Eldercare

Jul 13, 2008
Imagine living with animals your whole life! You have provided your companions with loving care. You have slept with them, laughed with them, and played with them. Your life revolved around their needs. In some cases in later life, your animals were your alarm clock, and they were the reason you got out of bed. In return, your animals enriched your life beyond description.

Now imagine your health has deteriorated, and you reside in an assisted living facility. Animals are prohibited. My love of cats is my life. I cannot begin to imagine my beloved furry friend not being at my side. But sadly, this is the reality for many aging people. They are left with recalling memories of their animals, looking at photographs, or reading about animals. Maybe they catch a quick glimpse of a dog running past the window. That is the extent of their connection to animals.

When my mother was eighty-years-old, she fell and broke a hip. She was separated from her two dogs for over two months while she recuperated from surgery and went through rehabilitation. I think the hardest part for her was not seeing her companions daily. A few times toward the end of her nursing home stay when she was permitted to go for car rides, my brother drove her to the family farm to visit her dogs. That probably was her best therapy of all. The story ends happily as she was able to return to her home and her dogs.

The good news is that as more research is supporting the physiological health and emotional well being when the elderly interact with animals, nursing homes, and assisted-living facilities are taking notice. For example, studies show that when animals are with residents with either Alzheimer's disease or arteriosclerosis, they smile and laugh more. They are also less hostile to their caretakers, and they are more socially communicative. Other studies have shown that the simple act of petting an animal, talking to an animal, or walking an animal can encourage communication among residents who are withdrawn as well as promote physical and recreational therapy. Residents are more likely to show up for activities, if they know an animal will be present.

One easy and inexpensive way a facility can provide daily animal interaction for the residents is to hang bird feeders outside windows to foster a nature connection. Bird watching is an activity most everyone can easily do. Residents can name the birds, watch for their favorite birds, and talk about the birds. They can even write stories about the birds. Mobile residents can help fill the feeders, feel needed, and get exercise in the process. My great aunt lived the last three years of her life in a nursing home, and a big source of enjoyment for her was watching the birds outside her bedroom window. The birds were also a conversation piece when I visited. She loved birds her whole life. Her home was decorated with bird prints and needlepoint pillows. I know for her the bird feeder that brought familiar birds to her world was a godsend.

Another idea is to have an aquarium in a common area such as a visiting room or dining hall where guests and residents alike can enjoy watching the fish. For a few moments each day, the resident is focused on a part of nature and not thinking about problems. With a little creativity, a facility could encourage family members to provide fish as gifts, yet all the residents could enjoy watching the fish grow and swim around. My grandmother always had a big bowl of goldfish in her home for as long as I can remember. She enjoyed caring for them, and I always went to the bowl to watch them.

Animals on the premises gives residents the experience of petting and touching them. Pets decrease feelings of being lonely or isolated. Not only does having a pet to touch helpful for residents, but the staff, volunteers, and guests will benefit as well. Studies show that residents are more apt to smile, talk, be more attentive and alert and just generally be less depressed when animals are around. Have you ever noticed when you see an animal in a room or on the street and stop to talk, the conversation invariably centers around the animal? Having animals around gives the facility more of a homey feeling than institutional. Animals will pick up on the emotions of the residents and sense who is happy and sad. They will offer their unconditional love regardless of the residents' physical limitations. Animals further offer sensory stimulation through sight, sounds, and touch.

Some facilities will house animals for the residents' companionship. The Delta Society's mission is "improving human health through service and therapy animals." The AAT--Animal-Assisted Therapy is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is an integral part of the treatment process and is directed by a healthcare professional. Other facilities support visits from pets through AAA--Animal Assisted Activities in meet and greet type of functions. Animal-assisted activities (AAA) provide social, motivational, educational, and/or recreational benefits for people during interactions. These types of programs do not require a healthcare professional to oversee it. Organizations like Delta Society's Pet Partners Program and Create-A-Smile provide training and certification for pet therapy visitation programs.

According to projections from the Census Bureau, the elderly population will more than double to 80 million people by the year 2050. Our society will be challenged to provide physical and emotional care for the aged population. Pet therapy programs offer the opportunity to keep residents engaged in life.
About the Author
Linda A. Mohr is the award-winning author of Tatianna -- Tales and Teachings of My Feline Friend and Catnip Connection blog for Seattle Press-Intelligencer, a professor at Northwood University, and the co-founder of Pet Apothecary. She is a member of Cat Writers' Association with human-animal bond expertise. Visit Linda Mohr or Catnip Connection.
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