Roughly 40% of those 70 years old or older own a pet. Many of these seniors live in their own home and have been a pet owner for years or decades. Others live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. While some facilities allow their senior residents to own pets, many others have pet therapy programs or community pets that require seniors to “share” the responsibility of owning a pet with other residents.
Physical Benefits Of Nursing Home Pets
Regardless of how pets find their way into nursing homes, research has shown that the presence of animals in a residential care setting has benefits that go beyond simple companionship. Animals trigger an instinctual nurturing in seniors that require them to think outside of their own circumstances. They help fight depression and loneliness and encourage physical activity. In fact, pet ownership among seniors is shown to reduce a senior’s risk of death from heart disease by 26%.
Pet Therapy Programs
Pet therapy is a part of the standard service of many nursing homes. The needs of the resident seniors determine the level of presence the animals have.
- Visitation therapy: Animals are brought into the center occasionally, but aren’t owned by the residents or staff. Seniors receive the benefits of companionship without the care requirements of full ownership.
- Animal-assisted therapy: Seniors who are going through rehabilitation are paired with specific animals to interact with during their recovery.
- Ownership Therapy: Community pets or individual pets provide their owners with the psychological benefits of owning a pet and also the focus and responsibility of caring for the animals.
Unique Programs And Pets
Although dogs and cats are the most popular therapy pets used in nursing homes, it is becoming increasingly common to see administrators attempting to use less common animals for therapy purposes. For example, Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley, a nursing home in Littleton, Massachusetts, is situated on a 40-acre property that includes a variety of pets for seniors to interact with, including an alpaca, llamas, and chickens. The benefit of having animals around has become apparent. Staff members report that Dementia patients seem calmer, and the center has seen a reduction in the prescription of antipsychotic drugs.
In England, nursing home administrators at Shadon House in Gateshead notice the same type of benefits from their use of therapy chickens, though in this case, seniors are responsible for taking care of the chickens. Since 2012, the idea has spread to more than a dozen other facilities in northeastern England.
The Contra-Indicators Of Nursing Home Pets
Although no one would argue the benefit of pet therapy in nursing homes, sharing living space can be a problem for some seniors. Many medically-fragile seniors are allergic to pet dander; others have ambulation issues that make it dangerous for animals to wander underfoot. Then there is the potential for residents to be scratched or bitten, leading to possible infection. Finally, seniors might be exposed to illnesses from the animals through mucus or excrement. These challenges make it difficult for some senior care centers to commit to pets or pet therapy.
One solution to the potential pitfalls of pet ownership is by using technology to create the next best thing to a biological pet. The toy company Hasbro has recently teamed up with Brown University to create the “Joy for All” robotic pet. This robot mimics the behavior of a cat (or dog, recently added), moving and responding to touch, but doesn’t require the physical care that real animals need. The program, termed ARIES, is working to add other features to their animals, including the ability to remind seniors to take their medication.
The Future Of Pet Therapy
There’s no doubt that pet therapy helps seniors who need companionship and stress relief. It has also been shown to help dementia patients. The debate between using real animals and AI varieties for therapy purposes is ongoing. While there are obvious benefits to using robotic pets (they don’t require basic care and minimize biological contaminants), there is also a question of how much they would truly enrich the lives of the seniors who use them. Animals have unpredictable demands and quirks, leading to an authentic interaction between them and their senior caretakers.
Do you have an opinion on real versus robotic pet therapy in nursing homes? Does your loved one live in a facility that offers pet therapy? Talk to the administrator and staff, and see how they feel about the issue.