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, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Calmer Waters: Spring 2019 book signings and events


Especially for folks in the Denver-metro area: You are warmly invited! Please drop by at a book signing to say hello, or attend the caregiver symposium or conference (or both!) for lots of great information, networking and support. Respite care is available for both events. Click on the links to find out more.

Why you should throw away that antipsychotic drug prescribed for your loved one

Elderly woman taking a medicineAccording to Human Rights Watch in an average week, nursing facilities in the United States administer antipsychotic drugs to over 179,000 people who do not have diagnoses for which the drugs are approved. Often, these drugs are dispensed like candy, without free and informed consent. . . without a family member or someone who holds durable power of attorney for the health care resident, to make a decision based on the benefits and risks of taking the medication.

Like my late husband, most of the patients who are given these drugs have some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s.  My husband was in a memory care home for two years. Towards the end of his illness, he was given an antipsychotic drug because his behavior became “difficult.” He was not combative, and he was mostly non-ambulatory. Once, though, while sitting, he swung out his arm and hit a woman who was bothering him. Since I wasn’t there, I don’t know the details. But in general, he was a sweet man up until the end. He did get annoyed, however, by other residents’ behavior. And so he was given a drug to pacify him. After visiting him over a period of a few weeks and noticing the deterioration in his overall wellbeing, including his inability to hold his head up, sit upright, or staying awake most of the day, I demanded that he be taken off a number of drugs. The improvement was dramatic and astounding.

According to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis, facilities often use antipsychotic drugs to control common symptoms of Alzheimer’s. These drugs are associated with clinically significant adverse effects, including death. Then why are they being prescribed to an extremely vulnerable, frail and “at risk” population? Because disruptive behaviors such as crying out “help me, help me” over a long period of time, or yelling out profanities, or exhibiting aggressive behavior can become a nuisance that caregivers –professional and family–are either not skilled in addressing or are too busy taking care of other patients to be bothered with.

What are the alternatives?


  • Eliminate noise and disruption.
  • Make sure the patient does not have a urinary tract infection.
  • Evaluate physical needs. Is s/he thirsty, hungry, constipated, etc?
  • Encourage the patient to verbalize feelings and needs, if possible.
  • Limit or reduce caffeine.
  • Reduce external stimuli (loud TV or radio, etc.).
  • Dim the lighting.
  • Avoid confrontation and use a soft, sweet speaking voice.
  • Provide companionship.
  • Identify events or issues that trigger behaviors.

Once you know the patient is safe and free from pain due to an infection, create a calm and beautiful environment.

Creating a beautiful space

  • Maintain a clean environment without clutter.
  • Enjoy a vase of fresh flowers.
  • Burn incense to clear and purify the air, unless the smoke or odor is irritating.
  • Paint the walls a color that rejuvenates the spirit. For instance, green is healing and relaxing, red restores vitality in people who are depressed, and purple is powerful for those who need spiritual and emotional healing.
  • Gather gemstones. They exert healing effects. Lithium quartz is said to ease tension and stress, and keep nightmares at bay. Pink Calcite promotes compassion, healing, and universal love. Amethyst is for protection, purification, and spiritual/divine connection.
  • Listening to calming sounds can relax a tense body within minutes. Consider a wind chime, water fountain, or a CD of singing birds, ocean waves, or falling rain.]
  • Use essential oils or aromatherapy to have a specific effect on the body, mind, and spirit. (See Aromatherapy, Chapter 18 in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.”)
  • Create an outdoor sacred space with river rocks, a koi or lily pond, a flowering tree or shrub, pampas grass, colored sand—the possibilities are endless.
  • Include religious symbols, chakra symbols, animal totems, prayer flags, angel statues, rainbow banners, and lamps with colored bulbs.

Herbal remedies

  • A nervine is a plant remedy that has a beneficial effect upon the nervous system.  Nervines are especially useful during times of stress because they have a strong relaxing and calming effect without producing a dulling, “hang-over” side effect.  They also tone and restore the nervous system to a more balanced state.  Some nervines are also anti-spasmodic, meaning they relax the peripheral nerves and the muscle tissue, which in turn has a relaxing effect on the whole system.
  • The main types of nervines are tonics, relaxants, and stimulants.
  • Nervine Tonics – are particularly helpful for strengthening the nervous system and restoring balance. In addition to having a relaxing effect, they have a vaso-dilating action on the blood vessels of the brain.  This increases oxygen availability to brain cells and helps with mental agility and mood.
  • Nervine Relaxants – are especially beneficial for short-term use, for example in treating mild depression or acute anxiety. “This group of nervines are most important in times of stress and confusion, alleviating many of the accompanying symptoms. They should always be used in a broad holistic way, not simply to tranquillize.  Too much tranquilizing, even that achieved through herbal medication, can in time deplete and weigh heavily on the whole nervous system,” says renown herbalist David Hoffman.
  • Nervine Stimulants– are used as a restorative “pick-me-up” when you need an energetic boost without that revved up feeling produced by caffeine.
  • Recommended nervines:
  • Passion flower- helps soothe anxiety, insomnia, tension headaches, muscle aches and spasms, pain, hyperactivity, epilepsy, and helps alleviate anger and lower blood pressure.
  • Skullcap – is antispasmodic and relaxing and is recommended to relieve headaches, mood swings, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, and nervous tension and exhaustion.
  • The next time your loved one is  feeling nervous, agitated, restless or hyped up, try calming him/her with a nervine herb or aromatherapy. If your loved one is on medication, please check with the physician to make sure the drugs do not interact with the nervine herbs.

Other ways to help a person with dementia relax and feel calm without the use of antipsychotic drugs.

  • Aromatherapy
  • Music
  • Pet therapy
  • Horticulture therapy
  • Color therapy

For detailed information on all of the above, read  “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia”