Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. What is a non-intrusive, low-risk way to help seniors in a nursing home to reduce stress, relieve boredom, and provide a needed avenue for physical touch and to show and receive love? Therapy dogs!
There are several types of trained and/or certified therapy dogs. Facility Therapy Dogs and Animal-Assisted Therapy Dogs are used by physical and occupational therapists in aiding their patients’ rehabilitation and recovery. Therapeutic Visitation Dogs are the most common and the subject of this piece. These therapy dogs are typically household pets whose owners invest the time for certification and to visit facilities such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes.
While the concept of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) may seem relatively recent, it was pioneered in the mid-1800s. We learn from Florence Nightingale’s book, Notes on Nursing, that she observed how having interaction with small animals helped her patients recover. Even the venerable Sigmund Freud was a proponent, and reportedly used his own dog as a “mood barometer” to judge a patient’s level of stress by how close or far his dog would choose to be in proximity to the patient. Freud even used his dog Jofi as a mediator, finding patients would often feel more comfortable interacting through Jofi than directly with Freud, who was somewhat more intimidating.
Today, dogs are recognized to provide cardiovascular, psychological, and cognitive benefits. Those effects are particularly beneficial to seniors, especially those in residential care facilities. Often the most serious issues facing these residents isn’t disease or physical complaints, but pervasive loneliness and depression. In addition, after a lifetime of working and caring for others, seniors often experience a real sense of no longer being needed. About 20 percent of all nursing home residents suffer from major depression, and an additional 30% from some depression symptoms. Depression often overlaps with dementia, negatively impacting both health and overall quality of life. According to one source, about 50% of nursing home residents are given antidepressants which may not be effective and can cause unwanted side effects.
Animal-assisted therapy is one available option of addressing depression. A dog is both nonjudgmental and attentive, and a mutually positive relationship can quickly form. Touch is especially important. According to Dr. Michael McCulloch, researcher and expert on pet therapy, “Touch is one of our primary needs when we’re born and one of our last to go." Dogs also help bring out our inner nurturer, helping seniors to feel needed again, if only for a short time. Even the simple act of interacting with a therapy dog can be a real breakthrough for some residents.
Take Ginger, a certified therapy dog who lived in an assisted care facility in Maryland. Once she moved in, her sweet, compliant nature engaged many of the residents and forged stronger community bonds.
It’s not hard to understand. Most of us have benefited from the comfort of pets, either as owners or temporary “borrowers.” Just the process of stroking soft fur or being gently “nosed” can be enough to put us in a warm and fuzzy frame of mind.
Of course, there can be risks of bringing animals into any living situation. Although the chances of a problem might be minimal, this article cites the need for facilities to have comprehensive policies covering hygiene, vaccinations, and staff training. One nursing home in Massachusetts may have found the no-risk answer for some patients – robotic pets. Their dementia patients apparently dote on them.
In our Manchester, New Hampshire office, ‘Office Ambassador’ Wicket brings joy and comfort to our team and our clients. While she is not a certified therapy dog, she has a lifetime of experience in giving warm, fuzzy welcomes and cozying up to the humans around her.