How Therapy Animals Bring Joy to Seniors
“I kissed a llama!” Those were the first words I heard as I visited a nursing home. I looked around and wondered what was going on as I saw a lot of smiles and happy, excited residents. Then I saw him, Rojo the llama was walking down the hall—of a nursing home! He too was smiling, I think he likes all the attention and the carrots he gets as he kisses all the residents. Rojo is a therapy llama who “brings joy everywhere he goes in the Portland, OR area. He dresses up in outfits fit for every occasion and loves to be around people.”
My Mom was at a rehab recently when SoBrina and her driver, Chandra from Canine Companion Visitation were visiting residents. Chandra asked my Mom if Sabrina could visit. Before we knew it SoBrina was on her lap lying calmly as my mom, not really a dog person, was petting her-and smiling! It was soothing to her and to all of us in the room. SoBrina gave the warmth, peace, love and undivided attention my Mom so needed in the rehab setting.
On National Respect for Chickens day I happened to be in an assisted living community that had therapy chickens visiting. They were a special breed that was fluffy and looked more like rabbits than chickens. They had small diapers on even. Their owner said she loves to hear residents’ stories of feeding their chickens and gathering eggs when they were younger or the time the chickens got loose or a coyote got in the chicken coop.
What do Rojo, SoBrina and the chickens have in common? They bring peace, joy and comfort to seniors in long term care settings such as assisted living, memory care, adult care homes and nursing homes. Seeing and touching pets may bring back memories for residents who have dementia. They may tell stories or remember funny antidotes from their past. They remember their pets when many other memories are lost.
Canine Companion’s website advises “Studies and reports have shown the benefits from animal visitation can be great and can include: lowered blood pressure, reduced anxiety, increased physical activity by interacting with the therapy dog, the feeling of acceptance, emotional/ social support & comforting, reconnection to past memories and providing an activity to which an individual looks forward.”
According to the Therapy Dogs of Vermont website, Dr. Michael McCulloch, a Portland, Oregon, psychiatrist, and Dr. Samuel Corson, of Ohio State University, are two active researchers and experts on why pets excel as therapeutic agents. The primary reasons McCulloch and Corson cite are an individual’s “need to be needed,” and “to touch and be touched.” In addition, Dr. McCulloch states, “Touch is one of our primary needs when we’re born and one of our last needs to go.” In long-term facilities, residents are often sorely lacking the feeling that they are needed. Pets allow them, even if for a short time, to be nurturers once again. Also, in a very real physical sense, residents can stroke their warm, furry visitors, facilitating social behavior and encouraging physical movement.
Often, when seniors are unable to care for pets anymore, they have to give them up. It’s heartbreaking! Having regular visits from therapy pets can make a world of difference to a senior who craves the love, warmth and affection from a specially trained pet. Therapy pets can help retrieve memories and bring back positive attitudes which are key to good health, happiness, and staying young.