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, heart rate, and anxiety levels. Ivan Oosthuizen, chief executive officer of Livewell Group notes: “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. 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. For these reasons, Livewell encourages its residents to keep pets if they wish and are able to,” Oosthuizen adds.
Pets are less threatening
Dementia is a disease that is incurable and progressively erodes memory and cognitive function. It impacts patients in different ways. Many people with dementia do suffer mood shifts, feelings of loneliness, depression, apathy and difficulties communicating with others. As a result, they often isolate themselves.
“Quite often our residents who are showing signs of withdrawing from other people, find pets less threatening and respond most positively to a dog, cat, bird or another pet. This is an absolute joy to see. We have noted that many of our resident dogs, for example, bring people together and encourage them to engage in activities,” Oosthuizen observes.
Therapeutic benefits of pets for dementia patients
Corlia Schutte, occupational therapist and activities coordinator at Livewell Village in Bryanston, Johannesburg, concurs. She notes that pets establish a strong emotional bond with dementia patients, which reduces anxiety levels and symptoms of depression. They provide emotional support, a sense of purpose to the patient and often 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. Schutte says: “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.”
Not everyone likes pets
“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 explains.
People with later stage dementia may behave erratically and unpredictably towards animals. She advises families of people with dementia to keep in mind to be mindful of the person’s mood and energy levels, as they may not always want to engage with an animal.
It is important to ensure that the patient does not become over stimulated by a pet’s high energy levels or 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 ideal for visits from pets as the patients tend to have more energy and be more alert then.