Home » The Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors: Including Those With Dementia

The Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors: Including Those With Dementia

Pet therapy for seniors with and without dementia

When families would walk into the building one of the first things that greeted them were the golden oldies playing on the jukebox, the smell of popcorn popping from the popcorn cart and the wagging tail of the building’s dog hanging around residents. It was 1999, and I was part of the team that helped open a beautiful assisted living and memory care building near the waterfront in Brooklyn, NY. Of course, people spoke about pet therapy for a long time in the senior industry before that, but I had not seen any residential community have their own dog before that. However, the power of having a loving pet around was unmistakable.

I’d like to start by addressing the biggest objection I hear, which is how will my senior with dementia take care of a dog or cat? Fortunately, there are options and great research behind these options.

Addressing Dementia with Pet Therapy

Pet therapy has shown promising benefits for seniors with dementia. Interaction with pets, including robotic ones, can help reduce anxiety and agitation, common symptoms in dementia patients. These pets provide comfort and companionship, which can improve mood and social interaction. Research indicates that pet therapy can enhance the overall quality of life for dementia patients, making them feel less isolated and more engaged.

A recent Technology Review Article shared how researchers are using AI and technological advancements to create companion robots for seniors with dementia. From the more sophisticated Paro (seen below) to the affordable Joy for All dogs or cats (available for around $140 on Amazon) there are a range of robotic pets available for the seniors in your life.

Benefits of Robotic Pets for Seniors

Robotic pets offer many benefits for seniors with dementia:

  1. Consistent Companionship: Robotic pets provide constant companionship without the need for feeding or grooming, making them easier to manage than live pets.
  2. Reduced Stress and Anxiety: Interacting with robotic pets can help lower stress and anxiety levels, promoting a sense of calm and relaxation.
  3. Improved Mood: These pets can stimulate positive emotions and reduce feelings of loneliness, enhancing overall mood and well-being.
  4. Cognitive Engagement: Robotic pets can engage seniors in meaningful activities, such as talking to or petting the robot, which can help stimulate cognitive function.
  5. Safety and Hygiene: Robotic pets eliminate concerns about allergies, bites, or infections, ensuring a safe and clean environment.

What to Look for in a Robotic Pet

When choosing a robotic pet for a senior with dementia, consider the following features:

  1. Realistic Design: Look for pets that mimic the appearance and behavior of real animals to provide a more engaging experience.
  2. Ease of Use: Choose models that are simple to operate and maintain, with clear instructions and minimal setup.
  3. Interactive Features: Select pets with responsive features such as touch sensors, sound effects, and movement to enhance interaction.
  4. Durability: Ensure the robotic pet is made of durable materials that can withstand regular use.
  5. Comfort and Safety: Opt for soft, non-toxic materials that are safe for seniors to handle and touch.

Concerns About Giving a Senior a Robotic Dog

While robotic pets offer many benefits, there are some concerns to consider when giving a senior a robotic dog:

  1. Emotional Attachment: Seniors may form emotional bonds with robotic pets, which might not provide the same depth of interaction and affection as real animals.
  2. Limited Interaction: Robotic pets might not respond as naturally as real pets, potentially leading to frustration or disappointment.
  3. Cost: High-quality robotic pets can be expensive, which might be a barrier for some families.
  4. Maintenance: Even though they don’t require feeding, robotic pets still need battery replacements and occasional maintenance.

Addressing these concerns involves managing expectations and ensuring the chosen robotic pet meets the senior’s needs and preferences. I would certainly plan on changing batteries on a schedule because you don’t want the robotic pet to “die” on your senior with dementia. Most importantly, as the article points our people’s concerns with AI, I have to agree with what the author said “If robots can enrich the lives of people with dementia even in the smallest way, and if they can provide companionship where none exists, that’s a win.”

Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors Without Dementia

Pet therapy is beneficial for all seniors, not just those with dementia. Here are some key benefits and considerations:

Best Breeds for Senior Pet Therapy

Small Breeds:

  1. Shih Tzu: Friendly, low-energy, and easy to handle.
  2. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel: Affectionate and good with all ages.
  3. Pomeranian: Playful, small, and relatively low maintenance.
  4. Miniature Schnauzer: Intelligent, friendly, and adaptable.

Medium Breeds:

  1. Cocker Spaniel: Gentle, friendly, and great companions.
  2. Bulldog: Calm, affectionate, and low-energy.
  3. Beagle: Friendly, curious, and good-natured.

Large Breeds:

  1. Labrador Retriever: Friendly, gentle, and loyal.
  2. Golden Retriever: Affectionate, intelligent, and great with families.
  3. Greyhound: Calm, low-maintenance, and good for less active seniors.

What to Look for When Choosing a Pet

  1. Temperament: Choose a pet with a calm and friendly disposition.
  2. Size: Consider breeds that match the senior’s living space and handling capability.
  3. Energy Level: Opt for pets with lower energy needs that match the senior’s activity level.
  4. Maintenance: Look for pets that require minimal grooming and care.

Please consider adopting before buying.

Helping Seniors Take Care of Their Pets

  1. Routine: Establish a daily routine for feeding, walking, and playtime.
  2. Assistance: Arrange for help with pet care tasks that might be challenging, like grooming and vet visits.
  3. Tools: Provide easy-to-use tools for feeding and cleaning.

Concerns as Seniors Age

  1. Tripping Hazard: Ensure the pet is trained to stay out of walkways to prevent falls and if they plan on walking it is trained to walk on a leash properly.
  2. Caregiver Support: Have a plan for who will take care of the pet if the senior’s health declines.
  3. Adaptability: Choose a pet that can adapt to the senior’s changing needs.

Service Dogs

Service dogs can be specially trained to help with specific tasks, providing both companionship and practical assistance. They can help with mobility, alert to medical issues, and provide emotional support.

Finding and Training Service Dogs for Seniors

When looking for service dogs you should start with reputable sources.

1. Organizations: Look for reputable organizations that train and provide service dogs, such as:

  •    Canine Companions for Independence
  •    The Assistance Dog United Campaign
  •    Paws with a Cause
  •    Service Dogs for America

2. Local Trainers: Certified dog trainers who specialize in service dogs can also be a good resource.

Training Process

  1. Assessment: Initial evaluation to match the right dog with the senior’s needs.
  2. Basic Training: Includes obedience training (sit, stay, come) and socialization.
  3. Task Training: Dogs are trained to perform specific tasks like retrieving items, providing balance support, or alerting to medical issues.
  4. Public Access Training: Ensuring the dog behaves well in public places.
  5. Team Training: The senior and dog train together to ensure they can work effectively as a team.

Training Duration

  • Basic Training: 4-6 months
  • Task Training: 6 months to 1 year
  • Total Time: Typically 1 to 2 years, depending on the dog’s progress and the complexity of the tasks.

Additional Benefits of Service Dogs for Seniors

  1. Increased Independence: Service dogs help with daily tasks, allowing seniors to live more independently.
  2. Improved Safety: Service dogs can alert to medical issues and provide physical support, reducing the risk of falls.
  3. Emotional Support: The companionship of a service dog can alleviate feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
  4. Social Interaction: Having a service dog can encourage socialization and provide opportunities to meet new people.

Service dogs can greatly enhance the quality of life for seniors by providing practical assistance, emotional support, and improved safety. When looking for a service dog, it’s essential to choose a reputable organization and ensure proper training to meet the senior’s specific needs.

According to a comprehensive report by the International Federation on Ageing, companion animals significantly impact the physical, psychological, emotional, and social health of older people. Pet ownership is linked to reduced blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and feelings of loneliness. Moreover, older adults with pets tend to have better physical and mental health compared to those without pets. The presence of pets in care facilities also enhances social interaction and emotional well-being among residents.

Pet therapy offers many benefits for seniors, including companionship, reduced stress, and improved physical activity. By carefully choosing the right pet and planning for future needs, seniors can enjoy a fulfilling and supportive relationship with their animal companions.

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