8 September 2015

Advice for family carers on pet therapy and its benefits for people with dementia

Interaction with animals can have many benefits for those with dementia and is an approach that could be introduced by family carers for the benefit of a loved one.

Here, we take a closer look at pet therapy and offer some tips for family carers on using it as part of their care routines.

Taking the lead on pet therapy

National Dementia Carers’ Day was introduced to recognise and celebrate the crucial role of the nation’s family carers. A key part of the day is encouraging carers to come together to share ideas and insights for ways to help a loved one live well with dementia. Pet therapy is one such activity that families may find beneficial.

Animals can have a very soothing and calming influence on those with dementia and spending time with them can be a unique and very powerful form of therapy. This is because the world can often seem alien and unfamiliar to someone with dementia, which can be very alarming. But dogs and other animals are recognisable and initiate positive memories, after all – a dog is still a dog.

As well as reducing stress, animals can also aid engagement. They provide interaction that is unconditional, and act as an ice breaker or conversation starter. Meeting with an animal can cheer up the day and bring a smile to those whose world may feel isolating and confusing. They can also help to improve mood and wellbeing.

If you’re caring for a loved one with dementia then arranging visits or encounters with animals is something that you could consider doing and here are some ideas how:

• Do any neighbours or friends own pets that they would be willing to bring round for a visit? Perhaps a dog, cat or rabbit – or even a budgie in a cage or tortoise? If you can, try and visit the animal yourself before any potential visit, just to double check how they are with strangers and being stroked or held.
• Are there any local community farms you could visit?
• Investigate whether there are any local support groups offering pet therapy sessions, such as those run by charity Pets as Therapy
• Have you considered getting your own pet, such as a goldfish, or even stick insects? The lovely thing about insects is that they are tactile and can be held, just like the more traditional ‘fluffy’ type animals.

Pet therapy in action
At SweetTree we provide care and support at home for individuals with dementia and pet therapy forms an important part of our specialist programme. Our pet therapy sessions aim to reduce any stress and anxiety that our clients may be experiencing, due to feelings of isolation, or symptoms related to their diagnosis.

Each pet therapy session is tailored to meet the different abilities and preferences of the individual, so it could focus on companionship with petting and grooming, or incorporate physical activity such as going for a walk in the local park.

Max and Ivy
Ivy would often feel frustrated and angry by what felt like an unfamiliar environment in her own family surroundings. Ivy’s family called upon SweetTree’s care at home service to ensure Ivy was safe whilst they attended work and social commitments. This care was often declined by Ivy, in her mind she was ‘fine’, and ‘didn’t want any fuss’. Understanding that Ivy needed a carer to help retain her independence and remain at home safely, SweetTree worked with Ivy’s family to find a solution.

Having discussed during Ivy’s carer assessment her love for animals, it was suggested that perhaps introducing Max, SweetTree’s pet therapy dog, could act as ‘an ice breaker’ to getting to know her carer.

Ivy welcomed Max with open arms and insisted he should come in immediately with her carer so Max could have a bowl of water, saying ‘he looks thirsty’. Now, after months of welcoming visits from her carer and Max, Ivy openly shares the joyful memories Max brings back from her past. The regular visits have dramatically improved Ivy’s wellbeing and self-esteem.

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