Therapy Dogs Spark Joy in Seniors with Alzheimer's

In school, teachers warn us against simply memorizing information. Come test time, it will be easier to recall answers if you understand the topic; if we remember the reasoning behind what happened and why.  Memorizing can be different than remembering in many ways. One is the longevity in which you can store the information, another is the emotion attached to the topic.

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So why, in this post about animal therapy, have we not started talking about adorable puppies or fluffy cats yet? Stay tuned.

Renee Savage brings to life the idea that, residents may not be able to memorize their dog's name, but they remember how they feel about dogs. Seeing her dog McGee brings a feeling of happiness.

McGee dog therapy alzheimers

Research suggests that pets make good companions for people with Alzheimer’s. This is because they are not critical and do not judge. Even though the animal may be a new addition to their normal environment, residents know they can interact with the animal without worry.

Renee Savage has always known that she wanted to be involved in Animal Therapy. First, she had to wait until she found a dog with the right temperament.  She found her match when she brought her new puppy McGee, a Golden Retriever, to visit a sick friend. He crawled up in bed with her friend and laid there for hours.

Once McGee was 2 years old they started training together as an Animal Therapy team. Today they are certified team through the company, Pet Partners. Although they have worked with different populations, they spend most of their time working  with the elderly and autistic.

Renee visits the residents at Avita of Wells one or two days a month with McGee. As soon as they walk in the door one resident is always waiting for them, Bill. As soon as he see’s them he’ll say, “I love this dog” or, “this dog is so soft.” His face lights up! He may not remember the dog’s name, but he knows that he loves seeing him.

Renee has seen the joy that McGee brings to residents in many forms. It’s Bill waiting in the lobby, or being with a resident as they take McGee for a walk. Her most powerful memory showcasing the benefit of animal therapy comes from earlier in her career, at a retirement community.  Renee had walked in with McGee and there were a few residents sitting near the entry way. One of the residents started saying “dog, dog.” It wasn’t until after her visit that one of the staff members told Renee that the resident hadn’t spoken in two years. It’s a story that still gives Renee goosebumps whenever she remembers it.

Renee’s goal when going into a community is to find the dog lovers. She does this without asking questions that will put residents back into their memories. She tries to avoid questions like “did you have a dog?” This questions might cause stress and frustration for the resident. When she visits with McGee she loves listening to everyone tell stories about their own animals. Simply petting McGee brings back good memories for people.

One of the reasons Renee and McGee work so well together is because they are more than just dog and owner. They are companions and family.  Renee knows McGee very well and can predict some of his actions. This skill is very useful while working as a team.

 In addition to the emotional support animal therapy provides, there are other medical benefits.  Some health benefits are, lower blood pressure and heart rate, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and boosting the hormone serotonin, putting the resident in a better mood.  Other benefits include reduced agitation and improved physical activity, eating and pleasure.

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There are many benefits to welcoming an animal therapy team into your community or home. Before welcoming a team into your community here is what you should know: make sure the team is certified with credentials, all animals coming into the community should be well groomed, all residents who interact with the animals should wash their hands before and after the visit.  Also, make sure the animals can adapt to changing situations. A resident who was excited to see a visiting animal one week, may want nothing to do with them the next visit. The animal must be able to adapt.

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