Pets can provide people with Alzheimer’s and dementia companionship, comfort and joy

Man resting in garden with his dog

My next door neighbor got an adorable lap dog that loved him to pieces during his struggle with Alzheimer’s. Now that he has passed away, his wife has a loving companion that gets her outside several times a day for walks. And that animal gazes at her with the love that only a dog can give. This was a success story of dog companionship for an elderly couple immersed in navigating the dark Alzheimer’s journey.

Pets can provide loving companionship, emotional therapy, and an excuse for getting out of the house for a walk and chat with other people on the trail. But pets can also pose a hazard when they get in our way or pull hard on a leash.

I have a friend who tripped this winter while walking her dogs. She fell and broke her collarbone. Another friend tripped over her dog in the kitchen and instinctively put her hand out to brace a fall. Unfortunately, she put her hand on a very hot stovetop and got a second-degree burn.

Pets offer numerous benefits

When people interact with pets the physiological response is a lowering of blood pressure and an increase in the neurochemicals associated with relaxation and bonding. These effects can help ameliorate behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Several small studies suggest that the presence of a dog reduces aggression and agitation, and promotes social behavior in people with dementia. One study showed that having aquariums in the dining rooms of memory care homes stimulates residents to eat more and to maintain a healthier weight.1

When a dog is brought to visit memory impaired individuals (either at home or a facility), unexpected and positive reactions occur. Some patients who have refused to speak will talk to the dog, and others who have refused to move might pet the dog.

My daughter often brought her Miniature Schnauzer, Paco, to the memory care home where my husband lived. Paco always brightened the day for Morris and the other residents. He would run around scrounging for crumbs and sniffing the residents’ feet. Some residents reached out to touch him. One lady liked to hold him like a baby. She’d place a napkin on his head, pretending it was a hat. Paco created a bit of a stir, but he brought a smile to everyone’s face, including mine.

The human-animal bond goes beyond the mind and is centered in the heart. It can nurture us in ways that nothing else can. Sometimes a person with memory loss won’t be able to recognize a spouse, but can recognize a beloved pet. Just three days before Morris died a friend visited him with his trained pet therapy dog. Morris was bedridden, dehydrated, and non-communicative, but he opened his eyes and reached out for the dog.

If your loved one is used to being around animals, has had a pet, or if there is an animal that he or she is familiar with, by all means encourage the interaction to continue. It’s an easy, wonderful way to promote ease and happiness among care partners.

If you’re considering getting an animal companion, consider the following pros and cons.

10 Ways an animal companion or pet can help a person with dementia

Pets can:

  • Offer people with dementia unconditional love
  • Help relieve stress and anxiety
  • Help build confidence
  • Encourage laughter
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Help the person reminisce and recall memories
  • Provide an opportunity to get outside and walk
  • Support social activities, i.e. talking about the animal with neighbors, grandchildren, etc.
  • Bring back a sense of fun
  • Provide an opportunity to care for a living being, which in turn promotes empathy.

Things to consider

  • Does the person have the mental capacity to take care of the animals’ needs?
  • If the person has a caregiver, is that caregiver willing to provide the care for animal, including visits to the veterinarian.
  • Not everyone wants to interact with animal. Make sure the person really wants a pet and/or visit from a therapy dog.
  • A stuffed animal, cuddly toy, or robotic toy animal might provide the comfort that the person would get from having a pet. This might be a good option to explore before making a commitment to getting animal.
  • What happens if the person dies? Consider who will take responsibility for the animal.

In the end, you may find that a lower maintenance animal is a better fit. A fish aquarium can provide gentle stimulation, and quiet, relaxing beauty and grace.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

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