We all know what pets do to us – they provide the best companionship when we are down and alone, they share our joys and triumphs when we are happy.
Our little mood booster, our warmest best friend.
But do you know that spending time with pets can be a form of therapy?
If you have ever stroked a dog’s soft ears or felt the gentle rumble of a cat’s purr, you will know just how calming it can be to your mind and soul. Unbeknownst to many, this is actually a form of therapy that can present many health benefits to the human body. In particular, for the elderly.
What is Pet Therapy?
Pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy as it is also called, is a strategy that uses animals to interact with seniors to help improve their quality of life.
It involves guided interactions between the senior, a trained animal and an animal therapist and it can take place anywhere be it nursing homes, residential aged care facilities or even at the elderly’s own home.
During the therapy, individuals can walk the animals, care for them, play with them, pet and even cuddle them. The overall goal is to help an elderly in various parts of his/her life, which can include:
- Social communication and interaction
- Emotional assistance
- Cognitive functioning
Dogs are the most common animal used, but cats and farm animals (like horses) are also widely included. These animals will undergo obedience training and learn how to be familiar around different types of people.
At the same time, they are also trained to interact with seniors whose movement may be limited.
Holistic Benefits of Pet Therapy for Elderly
For people of all ages, pets already offer multiple emotional, physical and mental benefits. For seniors especially though (who are at an increased risk of loneliness and isolation), the benefits observed in these aspects are threefold multiplied.
Studies have found that just fifteen minutes spent bonding with an animal promotes hormonal changes in the brain. Stress levels drop, and “feel good” hormones like serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin are produced.
What follows are lower cholesterol levels, lower chances of heart attacks and strokes and even the fighting off of depression.
For these reasons, utilising animals for therapeutic purposes is getting more and more common nowadays especially at senior facilities. It provides companionship for them which in turn promotes health and healing regardless of their age range or health condition.
In particular, it has now become a common strategy for dementia care and treatment, and positive results have been observed amongst those who are depressed, chronically ill or have an ongoing disability.
Many seniors are susceptible to depression as a result of loneliness or isolation. The reason could be many – a loving spouse has passed away, friends and family members cannot visit on a regular basis, or simply because they themselves are not as active as they previously were.
No matter the reason, pet therapy helps in that it provides companionship which is what many seniors lack of (especially those who live by themselves).
You see, having an animal around makes people happy. There is just this sense of loyalty and trust that only pets can provide, and cannot be gained from human interaction.
For firsts, they provide emotional stability during stressful situations. When feelings of loneliness is reduced, anxiety level lowers down and this in turn reduces risk of depression.
Besides, caring for a pet helps increase a senior’s self-confidence and self-esteem – it makes them feel useful and responsible for something. For people with dementia, the benefits observed are even more apparent in that animals soothe them when they have difficulty expressing with words.
Speaking of which, pet therapy helps improve social skills – seniors are able to share thoughts that they may otherwise not be comfortable to tell friends or family as pets listen without judgment and give unbiased affection. Interacting with animals provides a greater sense of purpose and meaning and this enables seniors to lead a life with an overall greater sense of wellbeing.
This probably doesn’t require much explanation. Just walking a dog alone will provide the much-needed physical exercise as seniors are encouraged to stay active and spend outdoors with them. This leads to improved mobility, and a healthier lifestyle overall.
Internally, more exercise improves their cardiovascular health as shown through lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. This also comes from the ability to have something to pet or touch, normalising their heart rate and reducing stress.
Also, feeding and grooming a pet can help increase a senior’s physical skills and help them become more active.
While pet therapy provides incredible mental benefits for seniors, its effect is even more apparent in people with dementia or other forms of cognitive impairment.
The aforementioned improved sense of purpose and meaning is one, but having a pet to care for actually improved mental stimulation. With increased socialization, it strengthens their ability to plan for their pet’s care and all these help with memory stimulation.
One amazing benefit observed is that pet therapy curbs negative behaviour (that is often associated with dementia). It is seen to help reduce anger, frustration and even sense of helplessness amongst people with dementia so in the mental regard, pet therapy does indeed proves to be extremely beneficial.
Once seen as a purely recreational activity, spending time with pets in the form of pet therapy can actually be an invaluable tool in bringing purpose and engagement for people of all ages especially for seniors.
The companionship provided is a powerful way to combat loneliness and isolation, bringing comfort while reducing stress and promoting overall health and wellness. Especially for seniors with dementia – they can truly benefit tremendously in the mental, emotional and physical front from therapy with a furry friend.