Until I had pets of my own (not counting the birds and fish we got as a compromise between the kids’ desire for pets and Dad’s severe allergies), I didn’t understand “pet people.” I didn’t understand how pets could be considered family members, how devastated people could be at the loss of a pet, how pets got their own dish of vanilla at the local ice cream shop.
Enter Boston terriers Balou in 2005 and Peaka in 2008, and I completely understood – and officially became – one of those crazy “pet people.” These spirited little dogs have added so much to my life. There is nothing like coming home from a long, stressful day at work and being greeted at the door by my four-legged kids with as much enthusiasm as if I’ve been gone for weeks. If you’ve never had the pleasure of having your tears licked away by a dog, you’re missing out. It’s truly therapeutic.
Pet therapy has become extremely popular in senior care facilities, and it’s no wonder why. I think George Eliot had it right, especially when it comes to our older adult friends – animals don’t ask them to remember things they cannot recall or scold them for speaking too loudly when their hearing aids give out.
Pigs and Kangaroos, Dogs and Cats
Numerous studies point to the benefits of pet therapy (and not only with dogs) for people of all ages and abilities, and countless books have been written about this symbiotic relationship. Sharon Sakson’s book “Paws & Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs” describes the work of a group called PAWS (Pets Are Working Saints), which began with six people and two nursing homes. The group has since expanded its reach thanks to the immense popularity of the program, but in its humble beginnings, it started with a cat, a bird, a ferret, and a potbellied pig. Believe it or not, “The potbellied pig was the hit. Everybody wanted to see her. We had a hard time getting out of the nursing home when we had the pig with us,” says Ruth Ward of PAWS. Few refused a visit from the PAWS group, whether they had lived with pets or not.
Now, if you think a potbellied pig is a strange visitor, try a baby kangaroo named Theodore. Theodore resides at a Silverado Senior Living community in Salt Lake City, Utah. “People absolutely light up when they see him and he puts children as ease when visiting their grandparents,” says Tara Zoumer, a spokesperson for Silverado Senior Living. Silverado communities also have the standard cats, dogs, and rabbits, in addition to toucanettes, mini horses, and long-haired guinea pigs.
Patti Armus, cardiac program director at a long-term care facility, brought Bella, her terrier-mix pound puppy, to work with her while she was stationed in the therapy room. Bella proved to be a great motivator (and conversation starter): “Without exception, holding her in their laps, stories just flowed about their own past pets and experiences,” says Armus. “Whether ambulatory or wheelchair-bound, residents loved taking her for walks within and outside the facility; therapy goals were even structured to enable them to hold her.”
Kathryn Trice, an activities director in Austell, Georgia, has been doing pet therapy since the early ‘80s, before it was a sanctioned activity in senior care facilities. “We would sneak the residents’ pet(s) in through the back door,” she says. Everyone, even those without pets, enjoyed the visits: “Their faces would just light up.”
Trice’s own pet beagle, Buddy, also made frequent visits to the community. One of her most memorable pet therapy moments involved Buddy and an avid pet lover who kept dog biscuits in her room. When the resident’s health declined dramatically, the family called Trice and asked her to bring Buddy. Buddy jumped right into bed with the resident and nuzzled himself beside her. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, she stroked his fur for hours on end. She passed away two days later.
Animals do seem to have an amazing ability to interact with people, says Trice. “They instinctively know who needs the most attention, and they know how to ‘get’ to the person who needs a caring companion, regardless of whether that person is in a wheelchair or bed-bound.” In turn, she says, the animals come to depend on the attention and love they receive from the seniors. When their community was struck by a bout of the flu and residents were confined to their rooms for several days, Julius, the 18-pound cat who lives on the unit, was visibly distressed. “He was pitiful,” says Trice.
Pet Therapy for Alzheimer’s and Dementia
The responses from residents with Alzheimer’s or other memory impairment are especially striking, says Trice. She notes that several individuals who have reached the point of being completely nonverbal will reach for the visiting pet and say, “Now aren’t you the most precious thing?” Others who suffer from sun downing (periods of increased confusion, anxiety, agitation, and disorientation beginning at dusk and continuing throughout the night) will sit silently, stroking the fur of a cat or dog, the animal’s presence almost instantly soothing the agitated resident.
Karen Nichols, executive director of a large continuing care retirement community in South Carolina, also speaks to the benefits of pet interaction for residents with dementia. “Animals cannot speak, and have to rely solely on their body language to communicate emotions such as fear, happiness, and sorrow,” says Nichols. “Residents with dementia also find it increasingly difficult to communicate verbally as their cognitive decline progresses and they have to rely heavily on body language to ‘speak’ to caregivers. Animals are able to pick up on body language signals faster than most humans, so it’s not surprising that the silent bond formed between residents and their pet partners is based on mutual understanding.”
Diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, Kitty Allen’s husband enjoyed having the family cat in his small apartment in the special care unit where he spent his final days. Although the facility had a no-pet rule, Tom the cat became a community favorite, roaming the halls and visiting other residents, even as Kitty’s husband moved through the levels of care. When her husband passed away, Kitty decided not to take Tom away from his new home. Tom now lives in the special care unit, and Kitty “continues to happily pay his vet bills, knowing that he has found a safe and meaningful life providing a great degree of pleasure and happiness to these afflicted residents.”
The healing power of pets is undeniable. If your community has been considering pet therapy, take the plunge. If you’ve thought about getting a cat for Dad, who lives alone and is lonely, don’t wait. Give the seniors you love the immeasurable pleasure of receiving the unconditional love and steadfast companionship of a pet. It will be a bright spot in their golden years.
Can’t get enough pet therapy?
Watch this video about dogs in adult day care programs.
Read more about Silverado Senior Living’s unique pet therapy program.