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Pet Therapy for Alzheimer's Patients

Eric J. Hall Health Guide October 10, 2008
  • After a hectic day at the office, there’s something quite comforting about coming home to not only your human family, but your dog—no matter what, Coral is there with her wagging tail and piercing blue “puppy dog” eyes. Petting her white furry coat offers a sense of calm, of familiarity.

         Having a dog as part of my family, it’s not a hard stretch to see why pets are so beneficial to individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Besides personal experience and anecdotal evidence, research backs up the important role animals can play in terms of mental and physical stimulation, including sparking memories, fulfilling emotional needs and reducing social isolation. 

         During a pet therapy program at a local adult day program, I watched the faces of clients with dementia light up when twin beagles entered the room. Some folks who rarely verbalize began speaking about their childhood pets. Others who rarely move were extending their hands to stroke the dogs. The dogs’ owner, a trained pet therapist, knew just when to back away and just when to approach, giving folks the breathing space to get acquainted and then participate. Ultimately, every one did.

        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.

       Recognizing this value to the community, AFA recently named PAL the 2008 recipient of The Brodsky Grant, a $30,000 grant which will enable the organization to train more volunteers and increase its pet therapy visitation program by 30 percent.

        At AFA, we’re not only seeing more facilities inquire about pet therapy, but our social workers are hearing from more individuals about this. Even folks who never before were “cat people” or “dog people” are asking. Recently, for example, a woman who took her friend’s dog when her friend moved into the dementia wing of a nursing home wanted to know whether it would be beneficial, and when, to bring the dog for a visit. Someone else just asked whether having a dog as a “support companion” for someone with Alzheimer’s disease would help if the person became lost.

  •     There is no doubt that we’ll continue to hear more about this. Pets have always been part of the American family, so it only serves to follow that they are, too, a part of families affected by Alzheimer’s disease who are in need of care and comfort.

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