The close relationship between humans and animals has been documented throughout history, across cultures and around the world. Dating back to ancient Greece animals have been used to improve emotional and functional conditions of humans. Ancient Greeks used dog drawings in their therapeutic temples and encouraged horse riding for melancholic people as a means of eliminating their diseased souls. The use of dogs as guides also dates back to ancient times. Armor found in a Pompeii ruin depicts a dog showing a blind man the way. Evidence of animal’s assistance in therapy was first recorded in 1792 in the United Kingdom. Farm animals were used to help improve the behaviours of mentally ill people.
The expansion and continuation of this close bond between humans and animals has continued into the present. Australia has an estimated 33 million pets and most pet owners consider their pet an important member of their family. Pets not only offer companionship and unconditional love, they can also have the ability to improve health and general well-being, especially in the elderly population. Pets help relieve stress, alleviate boredom and provide companionship to alleviate loneliness which is a major contributor to failing health in many older adults. The numerous benefits of pets for elderly people has influenced the decision of many residential care facilities to introduce pets as residents or regular visitors.
Animal assisted therapy
Elderly people, especially those living in residential care facilities are at a higher risk than the general population for developing a mental illness such as depression. This can be due to less social support, death of a spouse, higher susceptibility for illness or loss of independence. One form of therapy that has documented success is Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) or Pet Therapy. ATT is a supportive, goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the health care treatment process. The goal of AAT is to improve the client’s social, emotional or cognitive functioning. Animals used in therapy include domesticated pets, farm animals and marine mammals such as dolphins. There are many approaches to AAT but the positive-constructive bond that results from the human and animal interaction is the basis for all of them.
In elderly people, AAT is used to alleviate agitation and confusion, improve emotional and physical health and encourage communication. It has been found to be particularly helpful for people suffering from Alzheimers and Dementia. People with these diseases may find it easier to understand the simple, repetitive, non-verbal actions of an animal. After a bond is established with a therapy animal, people may be able to extend this bond to people. Studies have shown that AAT has a calming effect on people with Alzheimer disease and Dementia. This effect can be helpful for encouraging communication and decreasing agitation behaviours.
Apart from the benefits that animals can provide elderly people as part of therapy, studies have shown that just owning a pet can provide physical, mental and social health benefits. Some of the include:
Mental health benefits
- Pets reduce stress and depression: Research shows that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. Pets in residential aged care homes are one of the few interventions capable of permanently lifting the mood of residents.
- Reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem: Pets can offer comfort, help ease anxiety and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world. Dogs’ (and other pets) greeting rituals, affectionate nature, loyalty and unconditional love promote feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.
- Reduce isolation and loneliness: Not only are pets great companions, they also provide comfort from loneliness and social rejection. Caring for a pet can help elderly people feel wanted and needed and take the focus away from problems such as illness or family issues. Studies in nursing homes found that presence of a resident dog resulted in happier, more alert residents.
- Pets ease the symptoms of grief: Pets have been shown to play an important role in comforting elderly people through the bereavement period. One study investigating older adults whose spouse had recently died found that strong attachment to their pet significantly reduced their depression. Another study found that grieving widows who were non-pet owners showed a significantly greater deterioration in health compared to widows who owned a pet.
Physical health benefits
- Ability to perform daily living tasks: Older adults who are pet owners report a slower deterioration of their ability to perform activities of daily living when compared to to those who do not own a pet.
- Better well-being: Pets boost activity levels in older people, helping to improve overall health. Compared to elderly people who do not have pets, elderly pet owners visit the doctor less often, have less pharmaceutical expenditure and more often achieve the recommended level of physical activity for their age group.
- Cardiovascular health: Studies have shown that elderly pet owners have significantly lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels than non pet owners. Pet owners have also been shown to have a quicker recovery after heart surgery compared to non pet owners.
- Help create friendships: Pets can help elderly people connect with other people. For example taking your dog for a walk attracts a higher number of chance conversations with complete strangers than walking alone. Pets can also make the transition to a residential care facility easier for elderly people.
- Improves social interaction: Social and verbal behaviours of elderly people suffering from Alzheimer disease have been seen to improve in the presence of a therapy dog.
- Family unity: Pet attachment is positively correlated with elderly people’s adaptability and connection with their family.
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Author: Melanie Green