George Elliot once penned, “Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms”.
Therapy dogs and other animals often can stimulate interactions between someone with dementia and another person or even with the animal itself. A person who is agitated can often be calmed by stroking the head of a dog for several minutes. A much more desirable interaction and outcome for the person, than being over medicated to the point of not having any interactions at all. In addition to the ability to stimulate social reactions, the dog can also bring pleasure to the individual just by being there wagging their tail. The animal doesn’t require a response and is happy to come again and again. I have seen large dogs able to sit by a wheelchair and lay their head in someone’s lap, inviting a pet to the head or even better a scratch behind the ear! I have also seen a small dog get up onto a patients bed and curl up close to them waiting for a gentle touch, that may not come, but there is ever so slight a smile on that patient’s face. Having worked at hospice for many years, I have witnessed many events like to two noted above. I have always been amazed at how resilient the pets are, whether they are pets of volunteers or trained therapy dogs, they aim to please and do their jobs well. They seem to look forward in doing their jobs time after time and I suspect that they get as much benefit from the “visits” as they give!
It is important to know the animal’s temperament and energy level. The “right” dog matched with the “right” person can make all the difference in the world and lead to the desired outcomes.
At times dementia patients can be unpredictable, and their response to any animal may vary from day to day. Also timing of the visit should be considered. Generally speaking mornings are better than afternoons, especially if the person is experiencing any sundowning. It is important to also be aware of the length of the visits with the pet. Some dementia patients tire easily and have shortened attention spans, better to leave a little early from the visit, than staying too long.
While the dog has an important job, it is your job to make sure the dog is healthy and not stressed with too many or too frequent visits. They are always eager to please and need you to take care of their needs with a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and your unconditional love!
Dr Stanley Coren, from Psychology Today noted that in the United States it is estimated that 15% of people older that 65 will suffer from some form of dementia, and an additional 10% will suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. This amount is around 5.5 million people. Dr Coren is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and has authored many books on understanding dogs and the benefit for persons with dementia. Due to increased effectiveness of medical care and the public being more nutritionally minded, Americans are living longer. How ever a major issue with longevity is that we are seeing more and more decline in cognitive abilities and memory associated with various forms of dementia.