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Newsflash:
Thursday, 22 March 2001

Pet Therapy for The Elderly

Written by  Leah Abramowitz

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The club room in a suburban nursing home gradually filled up with elderly women and one old gent. Some came laboriously into the room on walkers,others used canes, but most entered slowly on their own steam. They didn't talk much to each other and one gray haired woman promptly fell asleep. Despite the best efforts of the group leader to interest them in a forthcoming outing or a visitor who had dropped in, most of the people were obviously bored. One more day in the nursing home; one more hour of their lives running out of the hourglass.

One woman sighed happily as she sank her face into a rabbit's soft fur; another hugged a little puppy who, like a neglected baby, was only too happy to be spoiled.

And then Vivian arrived with the animals. She brought two cute puppies, four furry rabbits and a cage of baby rats. The dogs ran into the room and instantly the atmosphere changed. There were loud welcomes and huge smiles. Several women held out their arms to the animals, waiting to receive one on their laps. The puppies walked around the room, sniffing someone's shoe, playing with a rubber ball and finally found two women who wanted to stroke their heads. Vivian distributed the rabbits to several waiting members. Two women who were approached rejected the animals and seemed even afraid of them, but giggled nervously at their own reaction. Even those who didn't hold a rabbit, dog or baby rat on their finger, however, were fascinated by the antics of the animals and followed every move.

The room had suddenly come alive. Everyone had some advice to give or a story to relate from their own past experience with animals. They made jokes and pointed out where "those critters" had gone. The participants observed excitedly as the animals jumped off the elderly people's laps, lapped up water, or ate a yogurt. The lone gentleman was gently feeding a rat some vegetables. One woman sighed happily as she sank her face into a rabbit's soft fur; another hugged a little puppy who, like a neglected baby, was only too happy to be spoiled. The club was a hub of excitement and activity.

All over the world this scene is being repeated, not only in senior citizen clubs, but in animal therapy sessions with autistic children, violent prisoners, mental home inmates, nursing home patients and wayward teenagers. As many doctors, social workers and psychologists are learning, working with non-verbal, dependent creatures has tremendous therapeutic value Physiotherapists report that patients with paralysis were more able to move their limbs, and even begin walking, after being exposed to animals, than those who were not. Improved contact with severely depressed people has been achieved in psychiatric wards after cuddly animals were introduced on a weekly basis.

For the elderly, especially those suffering from social isolation, low self image, poor functioning and lack of purpose in life, the care and contact with animals can have tremendous impact, as the opening example indicates. "Animals give unconditional love and loyalty," explains Efrat Mayan, who teaches animal therapy in a teachers' seminary. "Older people are sometimes afraid of rebuffs from others. That's why they tend to keep to themselves, and seem to be uninterested in the social world around them. But a pet doesn't judge the person who gives him to eat or strokes his fur. For an animal, no one is ugly, or smells bad or has never really accomplished much in life."

But a pet doesn't judge the person who gives him to eat or strokes his fur. For an animal, no one is ugly, or smells bad or has never really accomplished much in life."

Moreover, there is a basic human need which is denied to many older people that pets provide-the need for touch. The lonely, isolated older person gains a great deal, from having a living, moving animal on the lap, or sliding over hisfeet; petting the soft fur of a puppy or rodent; hugging and kissing a cute, loveable pet, "The effect of these animals is like magic." says Sam Simmons, the director of a nursing home. "I've seen old people who wouldn't come out of their shell, no matter what we tried. Suddenly take an interest in animals, of all things,and then through the animals start to interact with the other residents." Simmons relates the story of a widower who was quite depressed and barely got out of bed in the morning. "Somehow he began feeding the birds in our yard. He would put out stale bread which he cut up into tiny portions, wet them and scatter them on the roof of our storeroom. He would get up at 5 A.M. in the morning to feed his birds. He was convinced they were singing their thanks to him, as they descended on the roof. He never missed a day, and feeding the birds kept him active for over l5 years."

According to the director, the care of animals elicits the nurturing urge of many old people. "They took care of their children, and maybe their grandchildren, and their own aging parents at different stages in life. They feel the need to continue feeding, or stroking or caring for someone even now. There's a real need to give, and be needed in all of us." Simmons feels that looking after an animal, feeding and bathing him, and keeping him safe, gives the older person a purpose in life, a reason to get up in the morning, and a more positive outlook on life.

For some older people the animals become a substitute for a lost spouse or child. That's why so many people living alone take a pet after they are widowed. "It's easier to make contact with an animal than it is with people," says Mayan. An interesting study shows that caring for a pet actually increases human contact. A research project followed tens of older people who walked their dogs in Central Park in New York over a number of months and compared them with others who did not have a dog. The pet owners had three and four times as many conversations with other strollers in the park as their control group, some of which led to actual friendship. A similar result was reported for those who took children, especially babies, through the park.

Animals can serve as a trigger to making peace with one's past, an essential element in what the psychologist Eric Ericson calls, the stage of coming to terms with one's life. Whereas some older people have fond memories of animals from their childhood, others have the opposite reaction. Holocaust survivors who lived in concentration camps often have traumatic memories of dogs. In animal therapy sessions they may react negatively, even violently to the presence of even the smallest puppy.

"They took care of their children, and maybe their grandchildren, and their own aging parents at different stages in life. They feel the need to continue feeding, or stroking or caring for someone even now. There's a real need to give, and be needed in all of us."

However even those who have unhappy memories of animals can, with time and patience, be brought around. In a number of meetings with the residents of the nursing home mentioned above, Vivian sensed that one woman was revolted by the puppies. Gradually, she was able to tell the therapist how she had once been attacked by a dog. Verbalizing her fears gave the woman control over it. With time she was able to touch one of the puppies and then hold it. She started to stroke the animal, who waited patiently under her hesitant almost clumsy first attempts. After a while she was seen to be hugging the puppy close to her cheek, and there were tears in her eyes. "It takes time," declares Efrat Mayan, "but most people do eventually open up to animals."

It is essential to choose non-aggressive, pliable animals who will allow a lot of touching, and actually enjoy the human contact. The range of animals is wide, but furry, cuddly and young pets seem to be preferred. Many of the animals used in this type of therapy, show unusual intelligence and sensitivity. "They often sense which person needs special attention, which one should be left alone, which one is angry or sad, and will benefit from a rub," says the therapist. But at the same time, care must be taken to assure the animals' safety-from aggressive clients, from over-exposure, from too much or too little food and drink and from unhygienic conditions.

With so many obvious advantages, why is this relatively inexpensive type of activity still much too rare in most gerontological facilities? It turns out that not only certain residents and members of different frameworks maintain a negative attitude to animals. Sometimes administrators and workers are also put off by pets. Some hide their prejudice behind a concern for cleanliness or health. "Some people are afraid that animals will bring illnesses or lice," explains Sam Simmons. Others see the activity as unaesthetic, or a waste of time. For those who have been convinced of pet therapy's value, there is nothing more heartwarming than to see the faces of older people light up, when their clubroom suddenly fills up with the happy yapping, squeaking, chirping, barking, mewing and murmuring of various petting animals who are there only to please.

Last modified on Sunday, 03 July 2011 12:25
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Leah Abramowitz

Leah Abramowitz

Leah Abramowitz is a geriatric social worker with more than 30 years experience. She founded a day center, called Melabev, for the cognitively impaired in Jerusalem and the vicinity. She is also a free lance writer and the author of "Tales of Nehama", on the late biblical scholar Professor Nehama Leibowitz.

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