As researchers delve deeper into the emotional and therapeutic effects dogs can have on humans, the observed benefits of canine companionship for marginalized societal groups continues to grow. Once only considered as assistants for the blind, dogs are proving themselves indispensable for a number of conditions, such as PTSD, autism, and epilepsy.
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A relatively new service that therapy dogs provide is companionship and assistance to seniors living with Alzheimer’s. There are different ways in which therapy dogs are used in senior care including: dogs that make regular visits to assisted-living facilities and those trained to specifically help an individual inside his or her home. A number of programs, such as the Dementia Dog Project, have begun to advocate for greater acceptance of canines as companions for those with dementia.
A therapy dog specifically trained to help someone with Alzheimer’s disease can not only follow basic commands, but also cope with frequent mood swings and child-like mannerisms and behavior. Use of a therapy dog may alleviate the need to hire round-the-clock companion care, as well as impart his or her handler with a renewed sense of independence.
One of the most important tasks these therapy dogs learn are to lead their handler’s home and also to call for help (by barking) if the handler refuses to go home or becomes confused. Alzheimer’s therapy dogs have special GPS collars which can be tracked by the handler’s family, which provides important peace of mind to a senior’s loved ones. Other important tasks include preventing the handler from leaving the house unattended, reminding the handler to take his or her medication, and acting as a constant companion with a reassuring presence when their handler is facing new and unfamiliar situations.
A live-in therapy dog can bolster his or her handler’s emotional well-being by decreasing the stress induced by forgetfulness or the perceived intrusion of hired caregivers. A newfound sense of independence can improve a senior’s mood, thus keeping anxiety and depression at bay. Additionally, family members may feel more at-ease knowing their loved one not only has a constant helper, but is also protection from those who may seek to take advantage of the elderly.
Seniors who live in assisted-living facilities can also reap the benefits of therapy dogs, as many facilities understand the benefits of weekly or monthly visits with canines. Visitation with these dogs provides important boosts in mood, socialization, and even nostalgia, which has been shown to benefit dementia sufferers. Seniors who struggle with communication often find solace in non-verbally communicating with an animal, either by petting the dog or simply allowing it to sit at their feet. Most importantly, visits with a therapy dog can help seniors re-establish an interest in the world around them.
Whether used as part of in-home companion care or as occasional visitors, therapy dogs can be helpful resources for seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease. Well-being and safety are the most common concerns that family members express about their loved ones living with dementia, and therapy dogs can be a great answer to both concerns.