The ability for dogs to always bring smiles to people’s faces is uncanny, especially the elderly. There is something about the K9, and their skill of always bringing unconditional love to us humans, no matter what the circumstances are.
Dogs are so innately lovable and great with people that, in recent years, many nursing homes and health care facilities have used dogs for patients suffering from various mental diseases. Industry specialists call it “pet therapy”, and in particular, it has seemed to make a remarkable difference in those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Pet therapy usually consists of specially-trained dogs used to interact with people in need of socialization or stimulation. Alzheimer’s patients who have dementia especially benefit from the presence of therapy animals because they help reduce irritability and agitation, a prevalent symptom among those patients with dementia.
Research has long suggested that pets, especially dogs, are good for people with dementia, even offering health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, improving heart health, reducing various stress hormones and boosting levels of serotonin, the chemical in our bodies which give us joy, peace and happiness. It makes sense then that finding dogs in dementia and Alzheimer’s units is becoming increasingly common, so much so that some facilities are hiring pet coordinators to aid in the care of residents’ pets.
Dogs often forge a special connection with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. When you think about it, you really can’t fight or argue with a dog’s unconditional love, and even the Alzheimer’s Caregiver group is reporting that many of those with Alzheimer’s and dementia also benefit physically. Some patients who receive dog visitations increase their physical activity through playing, grooming and walking with a dog, and patients also eat more following a dog’s visit. Additionally, dogs can help Alzheimer’s and dementia patients deal with their feelings of isolation and loneliness as well, providing positive nonverbal communication and relieving depression and disorientation.
Dogs also have been shown to improve memory impairment among those with dementia. Memory impairment is synonymous with the condition, and more often than not, patients may withdraw from people when this symptom reaches a critical level. Dog interaction, however, is easier, less painful and non-threatening. Patients benefit from the physical contact provided by a dog, and they also simply enjoy the presence of that K9.
Dog companionship is an obvious benefit to those with dementia, but if you’re a caregiver, there are some considerations to take into account when coordinating a dog visit with a dementia patient. Firstly, a well-timed dog visit may help with your patient’s anxiety, agitation and depression, and it’s not uncommon to witness a patient transition from emotionless to joyful and animated when a dog enters the room, especially if it triggers pleasant thoughts. However, the opposite can occur as well. A dog can bring about feelings of over-excitement and unsettling with your patient, which can compound into worse patient reactions.
When you consider taking a dog for a visit, check with the facility first to see if there are any rules that need to be abided by. Once you get the OK, be conscious of the pet’s energy level and temperament level. Excessive barking or too much jumping may do more harm than good. Understand that your patient with dementia can be unpredictable when it comes to dogs. Some days your patient may laugh, and other times he or she may have little interest or even become annoyed.
Also, always be aware of your loved one’s demeanor, as they can quickly reach a point of over stimulation. If they begin to show signs of agitation, for example if it’s late at night when Sundowning might be occurring, (a common condition dementia patients experience where they get agitated and disoriented when the sun goes down), be cognizant of when it might be time to end the visit.
Many resources are available for those interested in companion pets. There are lists of facilities and informational material available online, and many local and regional shelters offer special programs to match dogs helping dementia patients or other pet. If you’re considering this option, consider for a moment whether your loved one can properly care for a pet, even for a short visit. Also, investigate the organizations you're contacting, and make sure they have had a long track record of connecting pets with those with dementia. Pet therapy has many rewards, but providing proper introductions and a good match with a dementia patient and a dog is vital. Skipping over the first steps it takes to initiate pairing a dementia patient and the right dog can be disastrous.