Dementia and the Animal Planet

As a child I begged my parents for a dog. My mom was dead set against it because she knew that, despite my promise to look after a puppy, she’d end up taking care of it. Though her parents and siblings loved pets, my mother did not. So it surprised me when dementia turned her into an animal lover.

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Her transformation was sudden. Maybe it was triggered by the prevalence of wildlife in my Pocono environment. Mom had been living in the suburbs for decades before she came to stay with me in the mountains. Shortly after arriving, she started laughing with delight at the sight of bunnies on the lawn or deer in the yard.

Animals’ abilities to calm dementia patients are now being explored in many settings. Mara M. Baun, DNSc, a coordinator of the doctoral nursing program at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at the Houston School of Nursing in Houston, has been researching the benefits of therapy animals for over ten years. Her work is described in Everyday Health by Madeline Vann. One of Baun’s studies compared adult social interaction in an Alzheimer’s unit — with and without the presence of a dog.

Baun’s research showed that patients displayed more interactive behaviors when they were with the pet. Though some of the behavior was aimed at the dog, rather than a human, the effects were similar whether the dog and dementia patients were one-on-one or in a group setting.

Lots of elder care and residential living programs are also trying to harness the power of animal therapy in their programs for dementia patients. The Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in Massachusetts includes animal therapy as part of its program. They use a llama and several golden retrievers to help soothe Alzheimer’s patients in various stages of the disease. Residents who become agitated are often calmed by contact with these animals.

Of course, the animals also require care. If residential programs “forget” about the health or nutritional needs of their therapy animals, that should be a red flag for families. As my mother often reminded me in childhood, “A dog should be as clean and healthy as its owner.” It took me years to fully understand what she meant. But I did finally earn the right to live among some beautiful animals.


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