We have discussed before the benefits of therapy animals for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, but in honor of Senior Citizen’s Day 2015, let’s delve deeper into the human-animal bond of senior citizens and therapy animals. Senior citizens suffer high rates of depression due to loneliness, from the passing of a spouse, lack of visits from family and friends, or no longer being mobile enough to enjoy the independence they once had. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) animals ease this loneliness, but not in the way one would expect. While AAT animals relax patients and make them happy, Dr. Savishinsky published in the Central Issues in Anthropology journal that, in his experience, senior citizen patients may actually use therapy animals to connect better to people as well as animals.
AAT facilitators know this and encourage senior citizens to interact with animals but also with other people. The animals serve as a “jumping off point” for human conversation and, while asking questions about, for instance, a therapy dog’s fur, the patient feels comfortable opening up about how the dog reminds him of when he was a young boy growing up on a farm filled with dogs.
The benefits of AAT animals and having pets in assisted living facilities are well-documented, both in scholarly journals and anecdotally.
This picture of an elderly gentleman holding a “just adopted” kitten went viral on the Reddit “Aww” board a couple of years ago, prompting hundreds of users to share stories of how they adopted pets for their elderly parents or grandparents for companionship and the profound effects the experience had on them. Many critics say having pets in assisted living facilities would make things unsanitary or otherwise unsafe, and while there are strict cleanliness and insurance guidelines to allow pets into these facilities, facilitators praise having animals. For instance, The Clare Senior Independent Living Community, in partnership with 1FUR1 grantee Tree House Humane Society, has been introducing animal assisted activity cat visits, Nikki Gamble the Life Enrichment Manager had this to say about our program:
Pets benefit people of all ages, but senior citizens find that they have fewer heart problems, instances of depression, and higher instances of sociability when they have pets. Look back at the picture of the old man holding the black kitten – that is the smile of a man who has a friend for life.