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Living Well with Dementia: Pet Therapy

It is scientifically proven that interaction with animals can bring manifold benefits for those living with dementia. While it might feel good to be giving a pet a good scratch behind the ear, it’s also doing physical good. Endorphin levels, the ‘feel-good’ hormones your brain releases, rise; the release of serotonin, nicknamed the ‘happy chemical’, also increases, lessening depression and anxiety; and cortisol, a hormone correlated with stress, and blood pressure both decrease.

Further, animal therapy brings significant psychological advantages for those with dementia symptoms: emotional connection, flowing of affection, relief of boredom, renewal of energy – the list goes on and on. It comes down to a very simple truth: pets just make us feel happier.

Picture was taken before COVID-19 lockdown

Pet Therapy for People Living with Dementia

Ownership therapy

People in the early stages of dementia – those still living at home with a family member – can benefit as they always have from the love of the family pet. The responsibility (which should be overseen by a caregiver, of course) of taking care of the animal – walking, feeding, grooming and so on – offsets the sense of helplessness too often found in people with dementia symptoms. 

Families can go a step further when it comes to ownership therapy: specially trained dementia assistance dogs, in addition to their value simply as loveable pets, can actually help with the tasks of caring for your loved ones with dementia. They can wake Mum and remind her when it’s time to eat or take medications. If Dad likes to go for a walk in the neighbourhood but it’s possible he’ll lose his bearings, at the simple command ‘Home’, the therapy dog will bring him back safely.

Visitation therapy

But of course, there comes a time when it is no longer safe for a person living with dementia symptoms to remain at home. When private pet ownership is no longer possible and someone with dementia has moved into a care home, they can still reap the benefits of animal companions through visitation therapy.

As carers, we understand the benefits of visitation therapy for our residents. You can bring Mollie the dog to visit Dad in his care home… it’s hard to know who will appreciate this more!

Our care homes have hosted all kinds of animals in the past, before COVID-19 lockdown, including dogs, rabbits, owls and reptiles. Riverdale Care Home, for example, previously brought in Pets as Therapy (PAT) dogs on a regular basis. 

Picture was taken before COVID-19 lockdown

Please note that we’ve had to temporarily suspend our visitation programmes because of COVID-19. We look forward to re-introducing the visits as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted interventions bring more advantages than just the obvious pleasure of associating with furry (or feathered, or finned!) creatures. For people living with dementia symptoms, being able to care for an animal fosters a sense of empowerment – even if it’s just through loving it. We all know how good it feels to be needed, and tending to animals, even for a short time, will give residents a sense of purpose, leading to improved confidence and self-esteem.

Moreover, animals can help break the barrier of isolation too often experienced by people with dementia symptoms. Not only do the animals themselves provide the solace and delight of companionship, engaging with pets is the perfect ice-breaker, leading to enhanced social interactions with people.

Facility therapy

Unfortunately, we have had to put our animal visitation schemes on hold for a while due to the coronavirus. Luckily we still have several live-in animals available to keep our residents company! If you’ve visited St Pauls Care Centre in the past, you’ve no doubt met one of their rabbits. These special bunny therapists still conduct one-on-one therapy sessions during the lockdown.

At Ashview Nursing Home our residents raised five chicks. We’ve also adopted two donkeys, Millie and Walter, to provide a little equine-assisted therapy.

Animal Therapy at Westgate Healthcare

In the Westgate Healthcare group, we take a holistic approach to resident care. We understand that there is so much more to caring for the elderly than simply seeing to physical needs. Improving the quality of life for our residents is our core commitment. One way we accomplish that is through animal therapy for those with dementia symptoms and others. The look of unconditional love in a dog’s eyes, the touch of a bunny’s soft fur – these and other animal interactions are powerful medicines indeed.

And we’ll let you in on a little secret: the teams at our care homes love the animals too!

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