Animal Therapy for Dementia Patients
The therapy dog community has grown pretty fast in the past decades, little by little it has been discovered that dogs can be useful in different facets. Animal therapy for dementia patients is just a small example of all the different occupations that these furry specialists can cover. Besides all the benefits that a trained dog can offer, it is hard to resist those kind eyes and waggy tails.
The immense medical and technological advances of the past century has had a big impact in population standards and raising the life expectancy bar a few levels on many countries. With this elder population literally “growing” there is also a downside since age related diseases are becoming more common and a cure is yet to be found for many of them. Dementia is fastly becoming present in almost all households in America. According to studies and estimates 15% of people over 65 years old will suffer from a form of dementia. Today 4 out of 10 adults in the US now care for a sick or elderly relative and almost half of all adults expect to be doing so in the near future.
According to Dr. Stanley Coren, psychology professor the University of British Columbia, “Most forms of dementia do not have a sudden onset, and in the beginning and middle stages of the diseases people can still have a useful, functional, and somewhat independent life if they have adequate assistance and support services.” Dementia patients could still present some memory loss and a lower level of cognitive abilities. Dr. Coren talks about forgetting to take their medication, or eat and in worse cases even get lost and not be able to find their way home. In these early stages of dementia is where animal therapy for dementia patients could prove to be more successful, even though it already is in all stages, however for later and incapacitating stages of dementia, the patient might not be able to tend for the dog.
There is a considerable list of groups who dedicate to training dogs for dementia patients, and that list keeps growing as time passes. An example is mentioned by Dr. Coren in his article “Assistance Dogs for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients” for Psychology Today, is a group located in Scotland, where a special program was initiated by students of the Scotland’s Glasgow School of Arts Product Design Department in partnership with Alzheimer Scotland, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs Scotland. In this program the dogs are not trained to use a harness like guide dogs for the blind use, but rather a leash long enough for them to be in front of the person with dementia and be able to lead them in the right direction in case they get lost. They are trained to respond to specific orders like when their owner says the word “home” they will lead the way home. There is also the option of attaching a GPS device to the dog’s collar that shows their exact location but that can also emit a certain sound which also works as the “home” command. Another important help they can provide is to activate a special alarm in case the dementia patient falls and doesn’t get up or if they hear a choking sound. These among other examples are only a small view of the different tasks of the animal therapy for dementia patients.
Besides being trained to perform these important tasks, they can also be regular pets and give unconditional love and companionship for their owner. The dementia person can be attached to reality by maintaining a routine and therefore improve the quality of life of their owner. Besides promoting exercise since they need to be walked, they can also help trigger socialization with other people. The ownership sensation provides a sense of independence and feeling useful by the owner which can help prevent depression often seen in dementia patients.