In the May 1993 issue of Lancet, it was reported that French gerontologist Dr Elisabeth Kruczek, had done a survey about the effects of pets on Alzheimer's patients. That study suggested that "contact with pets can spontaneously induce extended periods of calm, on occasions even permitting a reduction in amount of sedative therapy required ... a particularly agitated patient, who would spend the whole day pacing to and fro, would stop to caress a cat for a whole hour."
A program at Elmhurst Extended Care Facility in Providence, R.I. has a pet visitation program in which dog visits all of the residents, room by room. "This golden retriever was just born for this ... He is extremely smart and senses when residents want him to visit or when they want to be left alone. A resident who has no one outside the home to visit her has hit it off with her visiting collie." Another resident was positively affected: "This lady is hard of hearing, and we could never get her to submit to a heating consult or get a hearing aid ... Now she has gone and gotten a hearing aid, and she just loves to show off 'her' dog to the other residents."
In 1996, Kathy Alexander started taking her little dog to visit her father-in-law at his nursing home. The visits drew crowds of adoring residents. Kathy was so impressed by this that she left her real estate business to found the Sarasota Florida organization, Pet Therapy, Inc. Her goal was "to take her cuddly dogs to nursing homes all over the county to 'honor our elders through consistent, unconditional love.'" She says that the ability animals have to bring joy into the lonely nursing home residents keeps Pet Therapy going. "Once you see the effects of this, you can't give it up," she says. "I had one woman tell me, 'Don't ever come and not wake me up. I live for these visits.' What greater gift can you give?"
Animals are increasingly working their magic at Alzheimer’s facilities across the country. Just like art activities, storytelling, music therapy and poetry sessions, pet therapy is being incorporated into the daily calendar of activities and, in so doing, is engaging people with dementia and staff in meaningful interactions that help improve quality of life.
Among them, one of the first facilities in the nation to recognize the importance of pet therapy was Lakeview Ranch, a specialized dementia care residence in Darwin, MN. Running with this concept, it has a barnful of horses, rabbits, birds, etc. that are a regular part of residents’ life.
People Animals Love (PAL), a nonprofit agency in Washington, DC, regularly disburses 270 volunteer teams of certified dogs and their handlers to visit 24 retirement homes, nursing facilities and other sites, providing therapy to more than 1,000 adults and children each month who are “sick, lonely, forgotten, frightened, wounded or otherwise in need of a warm hug, a friendly smile, a reassuring wagging tail and a little companionship,” according to PAL officials.
A growing number of hospitals, nursing homes, and other health-care facilities across the country are accepting specially trained dogs and cats with welcome arms. Anyone who has ever loved a pet knows how comforting a furry presence can be. Having an affectionate pet visit during a hospital or nursing home stay can be especially beneficial, particularly for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
Not just any dog can became a therapy pet. Therapy pets are assessed for temperament and obedience, then given rigorous training to make sure they (and their human partner) are well suited to working in hospitals, schools, or nursing homes. Groups like the Delta Society and the ASPCA train people-pet pairs across the country. More and more pets, primarily dogs but also cats and other animals, are paying therapeutic visits every day.
Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing show that even a short-term visit by a therapy dog to a nursing home can ease agitation in people with Alzheimer’s. The benefits may be particularly pronounced in the early evening, or “sundown” period, when many people with Alzheimer’s tend to become agitated and confused. A therapy dog program can be a useful adjunct to other calming activities in such a situation.
Wellness and Prevention
A well-mannered cat or dog isn’t just for people who already have Alzheimer’s disease. Pets have numerous health benefits that may help to stave off the disease as well. Petting and stroking a dog or cat can be very relaxing, slowing heart rate and lowering blood pressure. Stress and high blood pressure have both been linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
What can you do at home?
There are multiple proven benefits of pet therapy, including lowering anxiety and stress, encouraging communication, improving mood, and lowering blood pressure. People with Alzheimer's may feel especially comfortable with a pet because it lets them interact nonverbally.
The person you're caring for probably isn't capable of looking after a pet, so it's not a good idea to run out and buy her a kitten unless someone is available around the clock to provide its care. But even pet therapy that doesn't involve direct contact with pets -- bird-watching and looking at an aquarium -- seems to have positive effects. Research funded by the Pet Care Trust, a nonprofit foundation, and conducted by Purdue University, found that Alzheimer's patients provided with aquariums gained weight (indicating better nutritional intake -- people with Alzheimer's often have trouble eating adequately) and showed less aggression. Try setting up an aquarium or bird feeders outside a favorite window view.
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