September is Healthy Aging Month, an annual celebration that provides older adults with tips on how to be healthier and happier.
Service dogs, with their small vests and compassionate eyes, have helped countless individuals with disabilities ranging from blindness, epilepsy and anxiety. Recently, a new role for these comforting canines has emerged: helping individuals with dementia.
Living with dementia
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 5.3 million Americans are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Millions more struggle, meanwhile, with other forms of dementia.
Most people are aware that dementia impacts the brain’s ability to process memories, both in the long- and short-term. Unfortunately, dementia also causes difficulties with language processing, object recognition, and planning and organization. These symptoms tend to progress over time, making it increasingly difficult for patients to live their daily lives without assistance.
The wide variety of symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can be understandably overwhelming. Patients with dementia often avoid social situations, including interacting with family and loved ones. They may also neglect personal hygiene and physical activities, and instead turn inward and shun the real world.
Benefits of therapy dogs
Anyone who loves animals can attest to their calming influence — bad moods can transform into good moods with only a couple of nuzzles and scratches. Therapy dogs can provide similar benefits to individuals with dementia.
Here are three ways that therapy dogs can benefit dementia patients.
- Therapy dogs can help patients focus on the real world
Therapy dogs can reignite a patient’s interest in the outside world. Patients who spend time with a therapy dog might smile, speak or even engage in conversation upon meeting the dog for the first time. Patients may be inspired to play with the dog or take it on a short walk, depending on their mobility.
Animals also provide patients with a natural and easy conversation topic. Since patients with dementia are often overwhelmed in social situations, their canine ice-breaker can come as a welcome relief.
- Therapy dogs can invoke happy memories
Many people with dementia are overwhelmed by their current situation. Not only are they fighting frightening symptoms, but they’re often in a new environment (a hospital) or surrounded by strangers (nurses).
Therapy dogs have the potential to inspire happy, familiar memories. Perhaps the patient grew up with a dog. Maybe he or she recently had a family dog at home. Regardless, dogs are a reliably friendly face in an otherwise uncomfortable environment.
- Therapy dogs don’t judge
Dogs don’t mind if a person has trouble finishing a conversation or getting out of bed. Dogs are soft, furry bundles of unconditional love, making them an excellent ally for people struggling with dementia.
Of course, not everyone likes dogs. Patients who are allergic to or afraid of dogs should definitely avoid them. Cats and other animals also make good therapy pets and might be an option. For everyone else, though, consider a therapy dog. A canine companion may have the power to transform a person’s life.
Sovereign Mental Health Services understands how important animals can be during the recovery process. Our unique equine therapy program encourages patients to spend time with horses and learn to love fuzzy companions. For more information, please contact 866-954-0529.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer