Interacting with animals offers people of all ages a variety of physical, mental, and emotional benefits. This is especially true for seniors, particularly if they’re suffering from an illness or injury. Some communities allow residents to bring their own pets, and most offer some kind of visitation therapy. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for seniors and how you can add it to your community.
What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?
There are two main types of animal-assisted therapy: ownership therapy and visitation therapy.
Ownership therapy is when a senior owns their own pet and keeps it in their room or apartment. This therapy is intended for active seniors who can exercise their pet, feed and water it, keep it groomed, and arrange for vet visits or in-home vet care.
Visitation therapy is when a senior living community or a third party brings in specially-trained assistance animals to interact with residents. These animals can range from dogs and cats to miniature horses.
Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors
Let’s take a closer look at the many benefits of animal-assisted therapy for seniors. We’ve broken these benefits down into three categories: physical, mental, and emotional.
Interacting with animals offers seniors the following physical benefits:
- Improved mobility
- Lower blood pressure and cholesterol
- Lower chance of heart attack and stroke
- Fewer doctor visits and taking less medication
- Increased appetite
- Faster recovery from illnesses
There are also a number of mental benefits for seniors who interact with animals, like:
- Increased mental stimulation
- Improved social skills
- Enhanced sense of meaning and purpose
- Memory stimulation
The benefits of emotional support animals in assisted living include the following:
- Increased self-esteem and confidence
- Lower chance of depression, anxiety, and loneliness
- Improved compassion and caring
- Better ability to cope with stress
Animal-Assisted Therapy for People with Dementia
Animal-assisted therapy is especially effective for seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Animals have loving dispositions that can help calm the agitation, confusion, and aggression that often accompany Alzheimer’s.
Interacting with animals can also provide memory stimulation for seniors with Alzheimer’s. They might be reminded of a family pet, helping them connect with their past. Petting an animal or hearing the sounds it makes also provides sensory stimulation that can put seniors in touch with their surroundings.
Types of Animals Used in Animal-Assisted Therapy
There are a wide range of animals that can be used for animal-assisted therapy.
When it comes to ownership therapy, dogs are a popular choice for seniors with high mobility. In some cases, a senior may own a service dog that helps them with their activities of daily life. If you allow residents to keep pets, encourage them to adopt older dogs, who are typically calm and easy to take care of. Dogs are also a popular choice for visitation therapy due to their cheerful and friendly dispositions.
Cats are very low-maintenance, making them ideal ownership therapy animals for seniors. Cats don’t require exercise, and the only mobility required is the ability to clean a litter box. Advise residents to select an adult, litter-trained cat from a local rescue center.
If your residents are looking for other low-maintenance pets, you can suggest the following:
- Fish (e.g. goldfish or Betta fish)
- Birds (e.g. cockatiels or parakeets)
- Guinea pigs
How Your Community Can Support Animal-Assisted Therapy
Now that you know about the benefits of pet therapy for seniors, you may be wondering how to implement it at your community. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Make sure every animal at your facility (whether resident-owned or visiting) has undergone obedience training. This includes training around wheelchairs, walkers, and canes.
- Any staff members who work with assistance animals should also undergo comprehensive training to ensure resident safety and compliance with local and federal laws.
- Work closely with residents who are pursuing ownership or visitation therapy. Help them make an informed decision about which type of therapy and which animal is right for them.
- Consider hiring a pet care coordinator who’s responsible for ensuring resident-owned pets are taken care of. This can include taking pets to the vet, ensuring they’re up-to-date on vaccines, and helping with grooming, feeding, and watering.