Animals as Caregivers

By Frances Maguire Paist

In 1991, Geriatrician Dr. William Thomas formulated the Eden Alternative, a long-term nursing care approach designed with the idea of “home sweet home” in mind. Dr. Thomas countered the long-held belief that disease, disability and decline are the purview of the older generation, stating instead that the real problems for our elders are loneliness, helplessness and boredom, all of which lead to spiritual decay.

In New York’s Chase Memorial Nursing Home where he piloted his program by introducing “close and continuing contact with plants, animals and children,” “the mortality rate (decreased) by more than 15%, medication use … declined significantly, nurse aide turnover dropped by 26% and residents’ loneliness, helplessness and boredom … yielded to companionship, self-sufficiency and … a sense of joy.”

Many senior living communities allow pets to live with their owners. For others, There are several credentialed Pt therapy dogs able to visit. Pet Partners International is a professional program providing training, and credentialing of companion animals and their owners.  Their ongoing education of both pets and their handlers insures the safest and enjoyable of these animal visitors.  Carefully selected animals, accompanied by their owners, visit a wide range of facilities including nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The result? Great happiness, contentment and sometimes even a rekindling of childhood memories from otherwise reticent elders.

Let’s face it. There’s just something about that furry paw on your leg or the soulful eyes of a much-loved dog. A 1999 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed independent seniors with pets tend to have better physical health and mental well-being, are more active and better handlers of stress.

The nearly two-year period of Covid - restricted visiting in elderly care facilities resulted in isolation, depression, mental and physical decline. For seniors accustomed to regular visits from a favorite trained therapy dog, their loneliness and disappointment is palpable. Although the idea of “Window Visits “seemed a good idea, we soon found neither humans nor animals understood or enjoyed these “visits”. It is long past time to return the joy of well-trained animals and the handlers who love them to senior living communities.

Many Thanks to the staff at Caregiver.com for their wonderful information and generosity.