The physical and mental health advantages of pet ownership are well known. Taking care of a dog can get us outside for walks and, along with other pets, have been found to lift our moods as well as lower our blood pressure and cholesterol levels. When we share our lives with animals, our quality of life improves as they help us manage loneliness and depression and often increase our opportunities for socialization.
But for those living with Alzheimer’s or dementia, a pet can play an even larger role. Some studies have shown that the actions of caring for a pet can momentarily take a person out of an environment so influenced by cognitive decline and allow them instead to feel needed and in control.
Although there are general benefits when living with a pet, service dogs are able to contribute specific skills to many people with physical or emotional needs. Those with Alzheimer’s can benefit from a skilled dog’s ability to calm and comfort them by interrupting the person’s feelings of agitation and anxiety. In comparison to a human caregiver trying to intervene, the sense of agitation may diminish instead of escalating.
These specially trained dogs can also perform more practical tasks, such as waking their owner, getting their medication and encouraging them to go for walks. Service dogs can also be trained to prevent someone with dementia from leaving home alone, help them with balance issues and reduce the behavioral symptoms of Sundown Syndrome, including the agitation, confusion and anxiety that often occurs in the evening.
The interactions between a person and a pet can be comforting to anyone. But perhaps most encouraging is the research that illustrates just how powerful this relationship can be. What has been found is the ability of the person with dementia to have feelings of empathy and altruism, as well as a sense of joy and tenderness, when they cared for the dog. It is these experiences that are believed to result in an increase in the person’s feelings of self-worth and being needed.
For those who live in memory care or memory support assisted living, the advantages of pet therapy can directly influence quality of life. When pets are brought into the community, not only do they help decrease anxiety and agitation, but social interaction with others is also encouraged. The physical benefits hold true for the residents’ overall health, including lowering blood pressure and heart rates. And there is nothing like a pet to encourage a resident to sit and talk or appreciate having someone who just wants to spend time with them.
One interesting discovery is that pets don’t even have to be real to provide benefits to someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s, as long as they are believed authentic by the person. These pets are often battery operated, make authentic sounds and have built-in sensors that respond to touch, making them appear more life-like.
In another study, robotic stuffed animals were compared to regular stuffed animals used to interact with those with Alzheimer’s. Although both types were found to reduce agitation in the person, the findings revealed that those in contact with the robotic animals were more visually and verbally engaged than those with the regular stuffed animals.
It’s important to remember that even trained animals are still animals and their response may not always be predictable. When they are interacting with someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, whose behavior can also be unpredictable, it’s important to supervise, especially until you are aware of the reactions of both. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
When searching for a memory care community for your loved one, you may want to consider their pet policy, including if pets are allowed to stay or visit. You may also want to ask if they have a resident pet or if they bring in a specially trained service dog for the residents to visit.
We understand the joys and memories that animals can bring and recognize the many elements that contribute to the quality of life of our memory support residents. We’re here to work with you and your family to create the most supportive and engaging environment for your loved one.