One of the more significant problems that families with Alzheimer's patients often face is agitation. Agitated behaviors may include
Asking the same question over and over again
Physical or verbal aggression
Several studies suggest that agitated behavior is twice as prevalent among patients with Alzheimer's disease as it is among patients with other forms of dementia — although researchers aren't sure why.
One common source of frustration — and potential agitation — for many people when they enter a residential care program is the loss of love and companionship of their family pets. To address this need, many different groups and organizations have established visitation programs to bring pets to people confined to nursing homes or enrolled in adult daycare programs.
Many different groups have established pet visitation programs that bring well-trained, docile domestic pets to nursing homes on a monthly basis to give residents a chance to pet and interact with the animals. Call your local SPCA to see if they administer a local program.
Volunteers and staff members for the various organizations bring dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and even birds to nursing homes, adult daycare centers, and other care facilities to visit with residents. All the animals are pre-screened to ensure that they have the proper temperament to be a visiting pet. After an animal passes the pre-screening, it must go through extensive training so that it will know how to behave when it starts to work in the visitation program.
The visiting animal is just half the team. The human volunteer who accompanies the animal also undergoes extensive training, so that he or she will know how to handle the animals properly and how to interact with the residents. The program gives volunteers the opportunity to share the love of their pets to comfort someone who, because of his or her living circumstances, has no other way to interact with animals.
You may be wondering how much good a visit from a dog or cat can really do. Studies show that interacting with animals lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and anxiety, encourages vocalization and social interaction, and even increases survival rates following a heart attack or major surgery.
Pet visitation programs may also do the following:
Decrease aggressive or hyperactive behavior
Increase physical and social activity
Help patients deal positively with their feelings of loneliness and isolation
Provide an opportunity for positive nonverbal communication
Relieve depression and disorientation
Improve morale, self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-respect
Provide a nonthreatening environment for play and self-expression
The simple act of physical contact and gentle touch can provide something that many of these patients may be lacking in their day-to-day lives. The playful interaction and exchange of affection, in turn, provides mental stimulation because the company and entertainment provided by the animals can help patients recall happy memories. Therapy animals help to liven things up, and they bring a spark of happiness to institutional settings that may otherwise seem depressing. You'll probably notice many additional benefits after your loved one starts participating in a pet visitation program.
Not every pet is suited for pet visitation programs. Some are too quick to snap; others have nervous temperaments. Remember, too, that you must do everything you can to protect therapy pets from inappropriate behavior by the patients they're visiting. Just like a child, an Alzheimer's patient may accidentally squeeze a puppy too hard or drop it without meaning to. So make sure that the people administering the pet therapy program pay as good attention to the safety and happiness of the therapy pets as they pay to the safety and happiness of the human patients.
Looking for a pet visitation program near you? A golden retriever enthusiast named Rochelle Lesser maintains an excellent nationwide group listing of pet visitation programs arranged by state. For more information, visit Nationwide Group Listing and scroll down to your state.
Many other organizations in addition to the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) sponsor pet visitation programs with the goal to use domesticated animals to bring a little comfort and joy to patients whose lives are constrained by illness. If you need help finding a pet therapy program in your community, call your local humane society, animal shelter, or SPCA.