01.21.11

Therapy Dogs for Alzheimer’s Patients

Posted in Alzheimer's Disease, Assisted Living, Assisted Living Facilities, Assisted Living Safety, care at home, Caregiver, Elder Care, Elderly Care at 11:34 pm by admin

For patients and families struggling with Alzheimer’s disease in an assisted living facility or at home, life can be immensely stressful. Not only is there the emotional strain of losing memories and relational connections, there is the new problem of sudden, unexpected, and totally inexplicable outbursts. As one Alzheimer’s expert said, “When you’ve seen one case of Alzheimer’s Disease, you’ve seen one case of Alzheimer’s Disease.” In other words, the disease is unpredictable, making emotional outbursts all the more jarring. And while the family suffers from these uncomfortable moments, the senior in their care is obviously struggling more. After all, something is bothering them and unsettling them.

Fortunately, the emotionally complex and “jumpy” nature of Alzheimer’s Disease can be tamed–or at least calmed–in some cases, by something very non-medical: pets.

Before I go into specifics here, I want to draw a parallel between seniors with Alzheimer’s and children. Both groups are unable to care for themselves. The world does not make sense to either of them. Both can be drawn into their own world by the most trivial things… And both of them seem the world through “new” eyes. So it should be no surprise that senior adults with memory ailments respond so similarly to pets as children do.
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But don’t take our word for it. Check out this quote from an expert at the Mayo Clinic:

“A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits. I can’t always explain it myself, but for years now I’ve seen how instances of having a pet is like an effective drug. It really does help people.”
Dr. Edward Creagan

Oncologist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN
Quoted from DeltaSociety.org

Dr. Creagan is not alone in his perspective. Doctors and experts all over the country have noticed and written on the benefits of animals on a person’s blood pressure, stress levels, and overall sense of health and well being.

Therapy dogs, of course, help millions of seniors and disabled Americans every year. This includes seeing eye dogs, and dogs to protect the mentally challenged: people with downs syndrome, autism, and all manner of ailments that would cause a person to be more vulnerable to injury and attack. And more recently, medical professionals have begun to use therapy dogs for Alzheimer’s patients, with positive results. Many patients have a noticeable decrease in aggression, a lift in social skills, and on overall reprieve from depression that so often plagues them.

So, how can this work, exactly? Several ways. The first is for caregivers who care for a loved one at home. If the family dog or cat is still alive and still well-behaved, make sure grandma gets lots of interaction with her if the two have any kind of rapport. But these criteria will not match most people’s circumstances. So for those who sometimes put their loved one in respite care or adult day care, ask about pet therapy. Many of these facilities are employing the assistance of animal professionals for several hours per day. These can include people from the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The nice thing about going through these types of groups is that the animals are generally going to be very well trained.

A well trained animal can be just the thing that an Alzheimer’s patient needs. Many patients come alive the minute they see their new “best friend.” Even those who are not prone to any kind of speech or purposeful expressions light up when the dog enters the room. Are they, at some subconscious level, remembering pets they used to have over the long course of their life? Perhaps they are. We will never know. But I suspect it is something simpler. I suspect that there is some instinct that is created into these animals. An instinct to protect and care for people. This is why therapy dogs work so well in so many environments. And this is also why they can put up with so much abuse (especially from kids! I could tell you stories…).

But I will leave the psychology to medical experts. I don’t know why so many seniors seem to react well to pet therapy, especially seniors who are suffering from one of the most baffling ailments out there. But they do. Many of them do! And if your loved one is suffering from any form of dementia, and all the loneliness that comes with it, you might want to look into the possibilities of pet therapy. Here is one place to start . For more info on assisted living facilities from Oregon to Florida, visit our homepage and being your search!

1 Comment

  1. Chris Kiesl said,

    March 11, 2011 at 11:16 am

    I am a Masters student in Counseling. I have to present a thesis and want to research pet therapy in group homes in patients with Alzheimers.

    I am interested in any suggestions you may have on how I can start, narrow down, place cats in group home settings, etc. I am especially interested in placing cats in the group home settings and sponsoring these cats for the patients.

    Would you have any information or suggestions for me? I would appreciate any help you can give me.

    Thanks Chris.