Friday, June 26, 2015

Pet therapy for those with dementia

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Pet therapy days are different. When Mitzi, a lovely golden retriever, and her owner come into Martha's room, a smile crosses Martha's face. She reaches out to pet the dog. It is the only activity she ever initiates. Sometimes, she even mumbles a word or two.

A small miracle, to be sure, but a miracle nonetheless to Martha's family, who thought they would never see her smile or hear her speak again.

In nursing facilities, day care centers, hospitals, and private homes throughout the country, pets are being used for therapy with senior citizens. Owning a pet has been correlated with lower blood pressure, lower blood triglyceride levels, increased activity and socialization, and even increased length of survival following a heart attack.

Pet therapy seems to be especially effective with senior citizens suffering from cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer's. Many people with dementia experience periods of agitation, especially in the evening hours. This is referred to as "sundowning." Sundowning is not only stressful for the person with dementia, it can be very difficult for caregivers as well. Studies have shown that regular contact with a pet can help decrease anxiety and increase feelings of calm and well-being, even during the difficult evening hours. Some Alzheimer's patients have been able to stop taking anti-anxiety medication after regular contact with pets was initiated.

Pets can also enhance the patient's connection to his or her world. Even people with very advanced dementia, like Martha, will sometimes respond to the comforting presence of an animal even if they respond to little else.

People with dementia are at risk for loneliness and isolation. As they become forgetful and disoriented, they may be reluctant to talk to new people or even to friends and family. A pet visit can help break the ice and provide a happy topic for conversation. Some people with dementia will communicate more readily with animals than with humans. A pet, after all, is a nonjudgmental listener who won't notice that they've used the wrong word or scold them for telling the same story four or five times.

Finally, pet visits allow people with dementia a chance to play and express themselves creatively. Pets can even become a valuable part of a therapy program. A man who might not want to practice walking with a physical therapist because it feels too much like work, for instance, might be overjoyed at the chance to take a dog for a walk because that seems more like play.

When most people think of therapy pets, they automatically think of dogs. Other animals used in therapy programs include horses, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and fish.

Not every animal is appropriate for pet therapy work. The ideal therapy pet is calm and gentle with no aggressive tendencies. This is especially important for therapy pets who work with people with dementia. Like a small child, a person with advanced dementia may not know how to respond appropriately to a pet and may accidentally startle it or pull at its fur. The animal's tendency should be to withdraw rather than to attack.

Very anxious or loud animals also do not make good therapy companions, as they may increase the anxiety of dementia patients rather than reduce it.

Finally, although pet therapy is effective with many people with dementia, it is important to remember more next time

1 comment:

Erin Browning Ball said...

Having a "resident pet" is also another way to incorporate animals into the lives of those with dementia. Not only can we achieve the calming impact of interacting with the pet, but we also give the person with dementia a sense of purpose as they will be able to care for their pet. Excellent topic to educate activities professional about. Thank you for sharing.