Alzheimer’s and dementia are lonely diseases. Diagnosed patients get frustrated and anxious in social situations and choose to isolate themselves from people. This is where animal assisted therapy programs come in. Animal-assisted therapy programs benefit Alzheimer’s and dementia patients by promoting social interaction. “Sometimes you get a resident here who is not very social, keeping to themselves a lot, and the animal is a tool that we use to bring the resident in, that we use as a conversation piece,” said Candice Kisner, a therapist at Lakeview Ranch, an assisted living facility with an animal-assisted therapy program.
The Alzheimer Project says animal-assisted therapy works for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia because “people with dementia recognize a pet in the environment as friendly and non-threatening.” Alzheimer’s and dementia patients often find social situations stressful and the animals become a topic of conversation that puts the patients at ease.
Several studies conducted in the early 2000s and beyond show the benefits of animal assisted therapy on Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Most found, as a 2004 study in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias states, that animal-assisted therapy “showed statistically significant decreases in agitated behaviors and a statistically significant increase in social interaction.” Studies have also shown that these programs lower patients’ blood pressure, help them heal faster from heart attacks and strokes, and keep patients at healthy weights. Malnutrition is a danger for Alzheimer and dementia patients, but spending time with animals encourages them to eat more.
Therapy animals also help patients with their mobility. Patients will play with the animals and the therapists ask questions about the animals, strengthening cognitive ability along with mobility. Dogs are the most popular animal-assisted therapy animals for Alzheimer and dementia patients, but animals from miniature horses to ducklings can be therapy animals as long as they have a patient and pleasant demeanor.
Sue Halpern, a writer who trained her dog Pransky to become a therapy dog in a nursing home, says the work is hard but rewarding. “[The patients] are getting a warm feeling, a feeling of connectedness and joy that is unexpected,” Halpern told Today. She wrote a book about Pransky’s therapy dog experiences, titled A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home and recorded a video which explains why she trained Pransky as a therapy dog, as well as what that training entails.