The environment in elder care facilities and hospitals can be hard to adjust to. Out of their element, away from their routine, and deprived of the everyday joys they might turn to in their own home, people in elder care facilities or nursing homes and hospitals can experience stress, loneliness, and depression as a result of these new environments. One research-based method for fighting this stress is animal-assisted therapy, or AAT.
Many domesticated pets have been used in these programs, which consist of scheduled visits to facilities with a handler, but dogs are the most common animal to participate.
The history of therapy dogs
How did dog therapy become such an institutionalized practice for assisted living facilities and other therapeutic/medical care establishments? Well, we owe a big part of it to Florence Nightingale, the first modern-day nurse. Her observations in the late 19th century of the interactions between psychiatric patients and dogs, and how the animals helped to allay stress and anxiety in the patients, led to published notes on the practice, and it subsequently began to grow as a treatment.
Freud would often use dogs in his sessions to ease patients into the practice of psychotherapy — and he noted that he himself felt calmer when his dog, Jofi, was in the room with him. In fact, it was due to this revelation that the concept of therapy dogs gained more traction and validation.
Why therapy dogs work
The proven benefits of AAT in various arenas — nursing homes, psychiatric facilities, rehab centers, hospitals, and more — range from the physical to the psychological and are powerful enough to warrant continued support of this practice that positively affects so many lives. Indeed, research has proven time and time again just why a canine presence can be absolutely crucial in the senior stages of life:
During what can be a lonely time of life, the unconditional love of a cherished dog or cat can be a bridge to more socialization with others, lowered stress, mental stimulation and a renewed interest in life. In the past, a move to a nursing home or retirement community meant giving up this important bond with the animal world. While many retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes still don’t allow pets, it’s great that many…assisted living communities have decided to integrate pets into their communities, as the pet therapy benefits to the elderly is overwhelming. (Source)
Psychological benefits of service dogs for seniors
A dog’s innate ability to read and sense human emotion has been shown to coax improvements in the social skills of patients in nursing facilities and hospitals, both those experiencing dementia and other forms of mental stress such as depression and anxiety. The simple act of primal companionship, without question, is proven to be a force to be reckoned with against the effects of loneliness in the unfamiliar environments of nursing facilities and hospitals.
Even just petting dogs encourages the release of oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that contributes to an elevated mood. And when it comes to the adjustment difficulties that often come with a shift to living in a nursing facility or any other type of assisted living or medical care facility, this kind of positive force can be a powerful solution.
Depending on the person or scenario, part of the value that dogs offer elderly people in these living situations is no expectations or obligation. Sometimes the presence of family or other recognized people — or in the case of more advanced dementia, people who are known but not immediately recognized, so they trigger some form of confusing memory — can cause undue stress on patients in hospitals and nursing homes.
So though the intent is kind, visits aren’t always helpful for patients. When it comes to AAT therapy dog visits, however, this kind of canine connection without strings attached is simply love, companionship, attentiveness, and brings out many positive reactions from patients.
Improvements for dementia patients
The cognitive benefits of animal-assisted therapy for dementia patients are proven across multiple studies. The presence of dogs has been found to delay the neurological symptoms of dementia — chiefly depression, aggression, and agitation.
How exactly? While the studies aren’t conclusive, the canine ability to read, anticipate, and respond in calming and appropriate ways to people’s impulses and emotions elicited an increase in verbal responses from dementia patients who otherwise see a significant decrease in verbal abilities. Some pet therapy programs have even observed increased appetites in patients with more advanced forms of dementia.
Building a new phase of life — with dogs
The presence of a dog in seniors’ lives doesn’t just produce extra doses of anxiety-calming oxytocin and serotonin — it can also provide a distinct sense of purpose in this new phase of life. Steve Rose states in his article “The Need to be Needed” that “the sense that one is needed is more important than the struggles one must face.” When other beings express a need for our existence, it provides us with a framework, a purpose: a basis for a strong sense of self-esteem.
Some nursing homes and senior living communities like the Silverado senior living network (with locations in California, Utah, and Washington State) have dogs on site (along with cats, fish, miniature horses, llamas, chinchillas, and baby kangaroos), and they involve residents in the care of the animals. One of the Silverado co-founders, Steve Winner, notes that the simple act of “‘caring for other living beings builds self-esteem.’”
This need to be needed taps into a key primal relationship between dogs and people that goes back to, well, the inception of the human race. The emergence of homo sapiens coincided with the already-begun process of dogs domesticating themselves apart from their wolf ancestors, and integrating with human life and settlement. Dogs provided hunting assistance and protection, while people in turn gave them food, shelter, and safety of their own.
A symbiosis built into the foundation of the human connection with canines, it’s been proven to play out in positive fashion for those living in nursing homes, senior living communities, and other contexts in which there’s a highlighted need for affirmation, company, and mental stimulation.
A New York Times article, “Nursing-home Pets: a Boon to Residents” reflecting observations of the effects of dogs in elder care facilities notes a boon of positive energy and effects for all involved in the community, from the residents to the caretakers to the four-legged friends themselves:
Health care officials say that residents are happier and more productive, staff members are more relaxed and although pets place an additional burden on them, their jobs are actually easier because of the uplifted spirits of their patients. And the pets benefit from the constant attention.
In a 2015 study that set out to observe the sleeping patterns and psychological health of nursing home residents in relation to twice-weekly dog visits, the researchers found that sleep length increased and depression dropped after the third consecutive week of dog visits. Increased levels of serotonin, a common side effect of interacting with dogs, is linked to better and more restful sleep as well as decreased depression.
These more recent studies cited thus far keep circling back to the main tenets of those findings that emerged when animal-assisted therapy was at the cusp of its validation, in the 80s and 90s. Psychology.com notes that “the number of pet assisted therapy programs was under twenty in 1980, but by the year 2000 over one thousand such programs were in operation.”
What spurred this use of AAT? Discoveries like those of researchers Alan Beck (psychologist) and Aaron Katcher (psychiatrist), who conducted studies in the early 90s, using:
…direct physiological measures to show that when a person interacted with, or even was simply in the presence of, a friendly dog, there were immediate changes in their physiological responses. Breathing became more regular, heart beat slowed, muscles relaxed and there were other physiological changes suggesting a lowering of sympathetic nervous system activity. Since it is the sympathetic nervous system which responds to stress, this indicated that the dog was clearly reducing the stress levels of the people in its presence.
From the physiological to the psychological benefits for elderly patients, dogs have shown time and time again that they’re an invaluable resource in a number of different programs and institutions. Every individual at every stage of life deserves health and happiness, and our four-legged canine friends appear to understand this just as much, if not better, than any of us.
“How Pet Therapy Has Changed Assisted Living” Mary Park Byrne
Animal-assisted Therapy: an Exploration of its History, Healing Benefits, and How Skilled Nursing Facilities Can Set Up Programs Lorraine Ernst
“How Therapy Dogs Almost Never Came to Exist” Stanley Coren
“The Need to Be Needed” Steve Rose
Nursing-home Pets: a Boon to Residents, Sharon L. Bass
“Therapeutic effects of dog visits in nursing homes for the elderly”
“How Does Serotonin Affect Sleep?” Ryan Hurd
“Pet Therapy for the Elderly – Your Ultimate Guide”, Adinah East