What will draw a smile and an “awwwww!” from most people?
You can count on a puppy to draw a smile from even the most hardened of hearts. Animals often have an appeal that crosses generations, cultures, languages and social groups in a way that draws people together.
Interacting with a dog or cat or any other pet also has the added benefit of being entirely in-the-moment. Petting a dog does not depend on past memory. It doesn’t require the ability to plan for tomorrow. It is truly in-the-moment.
This may be part of the reason that many people with dementia gravitate toward pets and thoroughly enjoy interacting with pets. A dog doesn’t judge. A dog doesn’t ask difficult questions. A dog isn’t comparing you to how you were yesterday. A dog is just there, in the moment, wagging his tail, utterly delighted to interact with you for this moment.
People of all ages and ability levels can benefit from visits with pets. Even if someone cannot adequately care for their own pet, they might appreciate visits from someone else’s pet.
Many long term care homes provide occasional pet therapy through volunteers who have trained their animals with St. John’s Ambulance Pet Therapy Program. These pets are calm and well-behaved and able to cope with all the activity in a long term care home. Pet therapy is increasingly being used in other settings as well; some airports now have therapy dog stations where you can interact with a friendly dog before flying to help reduce the jitters.
Interacting with an animal has been proven to reduce stress and reduce blood pressure in those who love animals. If someone is coping with a chronic illness or physical condition, interacting with a pet may reduce their stress. In some studies, interacting with an animal was shown to reduce people’s perceptions of pain. While their physical condition hadn’t changed, their perception of their condition had shifted.
For those with memory impairment, interacting with a pet allows them to thoroughly enjoy this moment without requiring memory. They may talk to the dog knowing that the dog will not contradict or correct them. They can talk about the dog to everyone else around—commenting on how cute the dog is or how well-behaved the dog is—and it keeps the conversation rooted strongly in the moment. Impaired cognition is no longer at the centre of the interaction. The person with memory impairment can just enjoy the moment, just like everyone else is also enjoying the moment with the dog.
When interacting with an animal is not possible, the next best substitute can be photos of pets or other animals. Many people find comfort in photos of beloved pets. In fact, recognition of pets sometimes extends beyond the recognition of people. For someone with advanced dementia, photos of family members may not provide comfort if they cannot recall who the people in the photo are; a photo of a pet may feel more familiar. Having photos of cute puppies or kittens or any other animal of choice may help to create a welcoming space and induce a smile.
If there are elderly animal lovers in your life, look for opportunities to help them engage in that long-standing love of animals. Bring your own pet to visit when possible; go on outings to a pet store to see the latest litter of kittens; if in retirement living or long term care, prioritize attending Pet Therapy visiting days. Consider updating the photo selection in your loved one’s home to include favourite pets from years ago, or even just cute photos of animals that will create a sense of comfort.