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Why is animal-assisted therapy important for seniors?

By Ana Jones - Founder, Phlex65


The contented smile and the calming effect that the one-eyed bunny rabbit, the one-legged chicken, the goat, the cat, and the dog brought to our non-verbal dementia clients was always gratifying. Holding the rooster or rabbit in their lap and rubbing the fur and feathers brought so much joy to seniors at the day program and at assisted living communities. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of the older adult’s memory is of the pet dog, cat, rabbit, frog, or tortoise.


For most seniors having a pig, cow, or goat while growing up on the farm, and being responsible for the animals was a big part of their lives. It is only natural that they would hold the animals lovingly. The interactions with animals make a difference in the lives of seniors who may be living alone or who may not have the ability to communicate verbally.


Seniors who are alone and isolated, have a higher tendency to feel depressed and have a lower quality of life. They may keep to themselves and spend more time at home as they grow older and are less likely to go out. Our society does not support many social events for the elderly and it is where animal-assisted therapy comes in. It helps seniors and other individuals who need social support get out of their homes, interact with other people, build trust and feel better about themselves again. These are just some examples of how animal-assisted therapy can benefit seniors.


What is Animal Assisted Therapy?


Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), is the process of bringing pets or other animals into therapeutic settings, such as hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes, to help people by providing comfort, reducing stress, and encouraging socialization. AAT also involves the use of animals in education, employment training, and other community settings.


AAT is used to help people who have a variety of mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). More often we see veterans who are able to thrive and manage their PTSD with the help of trained dogs. Animal therapy is also helpful for people with developmental disabilities, terminal illnesses, and chronic conditions.


How does Animal Assisted Therapy help seniors?


Animal-assisted therapy brings an animal into a senior’s home or facility to help them interact with others. When people are isolated and spend more time alone, they can start to feel depressed. When people grow older, they often have less support from family members. Plus, they’re more likely to have less money, as they live on a fixed income. This often leads to fewer opportunities to go out and have fun with others. AAT brings an animal on a one-time visit to the senior’s home or facility to interact with the person and make them feel better.


Types of Animal-Assisted Therapy


There are several types of Animal Assisted Therapy. Animal-assisted therapy - is a form of animal-assisted intervention (AAI) that involves the use of animals to promote health, well-being, and healing in humans. AAT is commonly used in healthcare settings as a diversion therapy to reduce stress, boredom, and anxiety.


AAI can also help patients cope with various health-related issues, including mental health disorders, developmental disabilities, and chronic illnesses. Animal-assisted interventions are the use of animals as interventions to improve human health and social outcomes. AAI is a rapidly expanding field with a broad range of applications that include health and wellness, education, developmental disabilities, workplace training, and social/community services. AAI is not a new field. It is rooted in the history of using animals in a therapeutic setting.


Benefits of AAT for seniors with Dementia Or Alzheimer’s


Dementia and Alzheimer’s are both progressive diseases characterized by a decline in cognitive function. Dementia is a general term that describes a decline in intellectual and social skills, while Alzheimer’s is a specific type of dementia that accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all cases. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are both commonly diagnosed in seniors, and often result in social isolation.


Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to improve mood, decrease stress, and increase socialization for seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s. In fact, AAT can help improve cognition and mood, reduce anxiety and reliance on others, and increase the amount of time people spend in activities that promote mental health, such as reading, playing games, and participating in activities like gardening or walking the dog.


How does Animal Assisted Therapy help people with disabilities?


People with disabilities can have a harder time finding employment and engaging in community activities, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Animal-assisted therapy can help people with disabilities to feel more confident, less lonely, and more productive.


One study found that people with developmental disabilities who visited with dogs showed improvements in self-esteem, and social skills, and a reduction in maladaptive behaviors, such as self-injurious behavior.


Another study found that dog visits reduced anxiety in people with developmental disabilities by promoting relaxation and decreasing feelings of loneliness. On days for animal visits to the program or home, seniors were only too excited to play with the dog, rub them down and give them treats.


Conclusion


From seniors to people with disabilities, animal-assisted therapy has been shown to be beneficial to a number of people. While the animals may not be doing the therapy, they can help people feel more comfortable sharing their feelings and emotions.


These visits help seniors engage in activities they might not otherwise be able to do, and they help people with disabilities establish confidence in themselves. As you can see, animal-assisted therapy is an important part of health and wellness for many people. If you or someone you know could benefit from this therapy, be sure to ask your doctor or therapist about it.


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