English novelist George Eliot once wrote: ‘Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms’. Researchers have for long observed that the human association with pets is positive for us, and can even have health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and reducing anxiety levels.
“Many dementia and Alzheimer’s communities around the globe have noted the therapeutic benefits of animals for their residents and patients. As a consequence, more and more of these communities are allowing residents to keep pets and are organising therapeutic programmes involving animals,” says Ivan Oosthuizen, chief executive officer of Livewell Group, an organisation that specialises in dementia care.
“Livewell has researched the benefits of animals for people living with dementia, most of whom positively light up in the presence of a domestic animal such as a dog or cat. Pets can provide a source of warmth and unconditional affection and love. It is no secret that they can have a calming effect and lift the mood,” observes Oosthuizen.
“For these reasons, Livewell encourages its residents to keep pets if they wish and are able to, and their loved ones can bring the family dog during visits. We also organise therapeutic events and outings involving animals throughout the year.”
According to Oosthuizen, dementia, — a syndrome that is incurable and progressively erodes memory and cognitive function — impacts patients in different ways. Many people with dementia do, however, go on to suffer mood shifts, feelings of loneliness, depression, apathy and have difficulties communicating with others and, as a result, may increasingly isolate themselves.
“Quite often our residents who are showing signs of withdrawing from other people, find pets less threatening, and respond most positively and quite impulsively to a dog, cat, bird or other pet. This is an absolute joy to see,” observes Oosthuizen.
“We have noted that many of our resident dogs, for example, bring people together and encourage them to engage in activities, such as a morning walk, or stimulate a discussion about the breed with others.”
Oosthuizen says that humans have had a long association with animals such as dogs and cats, going back some 10 000 to 15 000 years ago, when we appear to have started to domesticate them. “We therefore have a strong bond with these animals, and they tend to lift the human spirit,” he adds.
Corlia Schutte, occupational therapist and activities coordinator at Livewell Village in Bryanston, Johannesburg, concurs, saying that it has been shown that engaging with a pet can reduce the levels of the stress inducing hormone cortisol, while assisting in boosting the levels of the feel good hormone serotonin. In other words, pets often have a most positive physiological and psychological effect on people.
Schutte notes that the presence of domestic animals and pets can have the following therapeutic benefits for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients:
• They can establish a strong emotional bond with seniors and can reduce anxiety levels and symptoms of depression.
• Pets can provide seniors with emotional support, as well as a sense of meaning and purpose.
• Domestic animals invoke feelings of playfulness, empathy and caring, and may help to alleviate tedium.
• Pets are fun and may assist in motivating seniors to involve themselves in more physical and social activities.
• Many people living with dementia who find it difficult to communicate with other people, often respond well to animals.
• Pets may stimulate warm memories of previous associations with valued pets among people with dementia.
“We have residents with pet dogs, cats, and birds at the Livewell villages, and some keep fish, and there are even rabbits and ducks at our facility in Somerset West.
“One of our dogs in Bryanston, a three-legged female, attracts considerable attention from residents and generates all manner of positive activities around her. When she is walked, an entire little community walks with her. Another resident lives for her little dog, which almost certainly provides her with a greater sense of purpose, as she takes great pride in her pet,” relates Schutte.
She says that Livewell Village in Bryanston and Somerset West offer a range of engaging events and activities to stimulate the intellect and creativity, promote physical activity and enable residents to feel that they have experienced a full and meaningful day. Regular arts and crafts classes, movement classes to music, physiotherapy sessions, outings and a number of other activities are also organised to assist in achieving this.
“We have ‘companions’ who visit residents regularly to assist in combating feelings of loneliness and isolation and also plan activities in which we use animals and pets. Over Easter we have arranged for a selection of farm animals to visit our Livewell Village, which the residents are very much looking forward to,” adds Schutte.
“There are certain caveats to bringing people with dementia together with pets, however. Some patients may, for example, not necessarily be in the mood to interact with the family dog on a particular day, while others may simply not like animals. A highly-strung dog that barks and jumps on people, or a parrot that bites, may be upsetting for some residents. It is also unfortunately difficult for us to accommodate large dogs and certain other animals.”
Schutte warns that people with later stage dementia may behave erratically and unpredictably towards animals. She advises families of people with dementia to keep the following in mind with regards to pets:
• Try to be mindful of the person’s mood and energy levels, as they may not always want to engage with an animal.
• Ensure that the patient does not become over stimulated by Fifi’s high energy levels and do not let the pet overstay its welcome. If a person with dementia shows signs of distress or agitation it may be advisable to end the visit.
• Morning or early afternoon are usually better times to bring the family pet to visit the resident, as they tend to have more energy and be more alert then.
“We plan our activities involving animals closely, and tailor therapies and activities to suit the needs of each individual while ensuring that pets kept at the village are properly taken care of. Our dedicated, 24-hour carers assist with this where needed.”
The Livewell Villages in Somerset West and Bryanston offer a comprehensive range of services to support families while providing a safe, comfortable and stimulating environment for people living with dementia.
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