It has been shown in multiple studies that animals of all kinds play a very productive and positive role in caring for those individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Observations reveal that even those with marked memory issues recognize an animal as being new in their environment – different from the people that they see every day. It appears that animals cause those with dementia to feel comfortable and engaged. The animals are nonthreatening, nonjudgmental and approachable. They are pleasant to look at and to touch. They may evoke memories of pets in their past.
Some of the specific benefits of therapy animals with dementia patients:
- Decreases agitation, depression and anxiety
- Increases physical activity
- Increases appetite
- Increases pleasure and purpose
- Increases alertness
- Increases communication
- Provides emotional support and may spark reminiscences
Animals that provide therapy for dementia patients are not limited to dogs and cats. Pigs, horses, birds, chickens, goats, guinea pigs/hamsters have all provided positive interaction with those suffering with dementia.
Different animals have different tools in their wheelhouse. Some animals, such as cats, are more comfortable one-on-one or in a private area or room. Others, such as dogs, may be more comfortable in a group or common area setting. Some animals may be placed in laps or on beds, next to people sitting on a sofa or in a wheelchair. Also, stuffed animals can serve the same purpose in some cases.
Some animals can assist in care. It has been documented that having a therapy dog as a resident in facilities can provide assistance. One dog became aware of a resident in an ALF that was in the hallway, becoming agitated and extremely confused. The dog approached her and guided her back to her room where she felt safe. Cats are very commonly provided as in-house therapy animals in hospice facilities. It has been proven that cats can sense a decline in health or impending death. This does not deter them, but causes them to go to the person that may be failing and curl up in the bed with them, providing comfort. They seem to gravitate to the need.
Those with dementia may have difficulty communicating with human beings but open up to an animal. My mother suffered with Alzheimer’s and was cared for in a skilled nursing facility in the final years of her life. As her dementia worsened and caused a cruel descent for her into a world that I could no longer reach. I visited and she would stare blankly at me. Communication was rare at this point. One day, HABIT paid a visit to her floor. She no longer went out into the common areas and was confined to her hospital bed. A small poodle mix was brought into her room. She locked eyes with that dog and a light came in her eyes that I had not seen in months. She smiled. She reached. The dog was placed on her bed beside her. She looked down and petted the dog. She spoke to the dog. She looked so happy. I was so appreciative of what that little dog did for her that day – and me.
Animals have a great deal to teach us. They are valuable beyond just companionship. They are sometimes the best medicine.
Written by Terrie Ware
References and Sources:
“6 Benefits of Pet Therapy for Dementia Patients” Samvedna 9-11-17
“How Animal Therapy Helps Dementia Patients” Everyday Health, Madeline Vann MPH, 4-20-10