Dogs visiting nursing homes bring happiness to seniors. The interaction between pets and the elderly can be physical, emotional and mental.
by Joanna R. Leefer, as seen in the Courier Life newspaper group June 2013
Ask any seniors…how is a dog like a lightbulb?
Most pet lovers already know the answer. He lights up the room with his love. Senior care facilities think this way as well. Many nursing homes, assisted living residences, and senior centers offer visiting pet programs that allow residents to interact with animals. The results often turn into a love fest!
Vivian Stadel, a geriatric care manager and Brooklyn resident, has participated in the pet therapy program since 2008. Every month she and her therapy dog, Einstein, visit the Norwegian Christian Nursing Home and Health Center in Brooklyn. For every visit Einstein arrives in his official therapy vest and starts his tour of duty. First, he visits the Administrator’s office, then each of the three resident floors, stopping in every room for a short personal visit. The tour concludes in the activity lounge where he says his final farewell to the staff.
Ms. Stadel tells heartwarming stories of residents putting out their arms to welcome Einstein as he runs to greet them with licks, tail wags and the mutual gazes into each other’s eyes. Vivian admits that these visits benefit all involved. The residents are invigorated, Einstein loves all the attention, the staff is happy, and Vivian forgets all the daily worries such as bills, household and personal problems.
Dogs visiting nursing homes can help seniors physically, mentally, and emotionally .
Tears come to her eyes as she remembers Einstein’s interaction with one of his favorite residents. As soon as Einstein sees the wheelchair bound gentleman, he races over and positions himself right next to his wheelchair for a hardy back scratch.
Many other Brooklyn Senior Facilities have similar programs. The Prospect Park Residence at One Prospect Park West has a visiting dog program through the Good Dog Foundation. Every week a therapy dog visits the Essentia floor, a floor reserved for residents with special needs. Menorah Nursing Home in Sheepshead Bay has a visiting dog, Shadow, and Sunrise Senior Living at Sheepshead Bay has a pet dog in resident.
Nursing homes were one of the first settings to graciously open their doors to the concept of pet visits. Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a New Jersey founded organization, introduced one of the first visiting pet programs nearly 30 years ago. Such programs have been expanded to in other facilities including hospitals, psychiatric wards and schools for autistic children.
Substantial evidence indicates that pets visiting nursing home help seniors communicate.
The beneficial impact of pets and people has been documented for centuries. There is substantial evidence that the relationship between pets and people extend beyond simple companionship. The interaction can be physical, emotional and mental. An animal does not judge a person on his looks or disabilities but responds totally to the interaction. Visiting pets often get seniors to move more than they normally would which increases their mobility. Other studies document that stress levels and blood pressure is reduced after playing with a pet.
This proves true when a visiting pet walks into a room full of seniors. Many senior homes, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living residents offer therapy dog programs to allow their inhabitants to share the joy of visiting with a pet. It often sparks memories and starts conversations about their own pets and stories from their earlier years.
The visiting pet program is not limited to dogs. It can include cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, parrots, domesticated rats and in some parts of the country llamas, horses, goats, donkeys, pigs, and chicken. Nancy George-Michalson, Therapy Animal Program Coordinator for Pet Partners, a nation-wide animal organization mentioned that in New Jersey they have a potbelly pig named Sherman registered in the program. Sherman carries a basket balanced on his nose as he makes the rounds. Now, that brings a lot of smiles!
Dogs must go through extensive training before visiting nursing homes.
Not every animal is eligible for the visiting pet program. First they must have the proper temperament. They must be friendly and patient, respond to commands, and not be distracted by loud noises. The pet must have a current rabies vaccination and license, and must be free of ticks and fleas.
The handler must also go through extensive training. They must follow a certain protocol, be courteous and respect the privacy of patients. The final examine can often include simulating a chaotic environment similar to one that might occur in a nursing home. Both the pet and the handler are tested. The participants must enter into a room, ignore the stimulus and remain calm. They are to ignore any other pet that is in the room. Only calm animals and handlers will receive certification.
If you are interested in becoming certified and providing pet therapy in a facility near you, there are several agencies that offer training a credentialing throughout the United States and Canada. Each program has slightly different certification requirements. For instance Pet Partners, formerly called the Delta Society requires recertification every two years.
To get a pet therapy program started in your facility, start by checking the yellow pages or online to find local providers in your area. You could also check other senior facilities and get names of pet therapy providers from them. One advantage of talking to other facilities is first hand references and recommendations. It may take a little hard work, but the smiles and happy faces will make it all worth it when you light up your facility!