Throughout more than a decade of caring for my dad as he battled Alzheimer’s disease and eight years of caring for my mom with vascular dementia, I’ve become a firm believer in pet therapy. I have learned how affectionate and loveable pets can help to alleviate some of the anxiety and depression experienced by those living with dementia-related diseases.
With Dad, there were times I would see him become saturated with confusion. I would place our cat on his lap and casually tell him, “I think Kitty (named by Dad) is lonely and in dire need of love and attention.” This gave both his hands and his mind something to focus on. As if on cue, my father’s anxiety and bewilderment vanished when the purring commenced.
A common characteristic of those living with dementia can be a loss of ambition. Including a pet as part of their environment helps to motivate them with a sense of responsibility and purpose.
Many times, I walked into our kitchen and found up to five bowls of cat food on the floor. Then my father would ask, repeatedly if I had fed the cat. (I never had to worry about that cat starving.) Despite the repetition, I soon learned that our furry friend made my life easier as a caregiver.
Pet ownership has been associated with lowering blood triglyceride levels in the human body. This helps to increase activity and, hopefully, socialization. Having a pet around the house helps break up the solitude that forgetfulness creates. This goes for both parties involved.
Some pets seem to be sensitive to the patient’s needs, and most enjoy the attention. They don’t get upset and walk away when hearing the same story over and over or weathering constant chatter that makes absolutely no sense. Perhaps they’re better listeners or, at the very least, not as judgmental as humans.
If your loved one has a pet that helps decrease his or her anxiety and leaves a feeling of calm, then that animal has just accomplished a part of your goal as a caregiver. Of course, like any other type of intervention, this might not work for everyone. But I believe it’s worth a try. If you have friends or neighbors that own a pet, ask them to bring their four-legged friends over for a visit. The results may indeed surprise you. Almost every assisted living and memory care building I know has therapy dogs visiting and making their rounds visiting their residents. I have a dear friend who lives in assisted living in England, and she recently told me how they had Alpacas come to visit throughout her building.
Some caregivers will want to go out and get a new dog. I would advise. However, remember how much work a puppy is. As a caregiver, you already have your hands more than full, and trying to train a “youngster” and take care of your loved one at the same time may be too much to handle.
The ideal pet is one that is calm and gentle, not hyperactive or loud. Select a new pet with great care. If your loved one has always been afraid of dogs, a dog is probably not the answer. Try an aquarium full of fish, a hamster, a rabbit, or even a bird; any pet that gives them a feeling of being needed.
Pets have that uncanny way of sensing things that no one else will. They may help you and your loved ones in many heartwarming ways.
Gary Joseph LeBlanc, CDCS
Dementia Spotlight Foundation