Pets as Therapy for Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Some days I am extremely popular when I visit my mom and her fellow residents in the secure unit, but that popularity is based on the company I keep. My popularity on those days is based on my companion: Zoe, my 10-year-old miniature schnauzer.

    Dorian and Zoe

    The minute that Mom sees Zoe, she perks up and is in a good humor. I put Zoe on my mom’s lap and then push Mom’s wheelchair to the location where we are going to visit. Zoe looks around as we travel around the secure unit, but stays seated in Mom’s lap. Sometimes Mom, Zoe and I will sit outside in the courtyard; other times, we’ll remain in the common area. No matter where we are, the time proves to be a “win-win” situation for all parties. Zoe gets rubbed behind her ears (which she loves) and Mom gets the stress reduction that comes with a loving pet (which she needs). Plus, it seems like Mom doesn’t have as many outbursts in the days following Zoe’s visit (which means the nursing staff is happy).
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    I also have noticed that during these visits, other residents will congregate around Zoe so they can interact with her. Luckily, Zoe takes this attention in stride because I exposed her to many new experiences and people when she was young. She’s still not good with little kids, but she’s very comfortable with adults, even ones who can no longer communicate. Gilda Radner once said, “I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive.” That’s especially true for Zoe, who has a remarkable sixth sense to know when someone needs a little extra affection and patience. My dog just looks into my mom’s face with big intelligent brown eyes that seem to understand the situation.

    Zoe’s presence also provides a good conversation starter for my Mom and the other residents. I can ask Mom to recall why she selected Zoe as my birthday present and can get her to share other stories about my dog’s escapades. The other residents join Mom in a few laughs while Zoe loves getting the extra attention.

    Based on what I’ve seen, I believe interactions with a family pet can be very beneficial for an Alzheimer’s patient. If the patient is in a nursing home, work with the staff to find a place where the pet can visit. Also, make sure that you gauge the pet’s potential reactions if you are taking the animal to visit the nursing home. For instance, Zoe handles all of the attention from the various residents quite well; however, my parents’ dog, Zasu, would bark loudly if she was in a similar situation. That reaction would potentially scare the residents and could trigger some negative outbursts. So when we took Zasu for a visit to the nursing home recently, we worked with the staff to find a private location where Mom could see her dog.

    In thinking about the role dogs can play in the life of someone who has Alzheimer’s disease, I believe Roger Caras has it right: “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

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Published On: May 19, 2006