Dementia is the umbrella term for general loss of mental abilities that affects an individual’s capability to function and carry out activities of daily living. It most commonly affects older adults, but it is not a normal part of aging. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, characterized by a gradual decline in function with deficits in memory, problem-solving, language, behavior, and safety. In 2014, five million Americans were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. According to the CDC, this rate is projected to nearly triple by 2060 to 14 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Dementia is a progressive, chronic condition. While there are medications available that may help manage symptoms, there is currently no treatment that slows or stops the progression of this condition. Therefore, it’s essential that we invest time into interventions that improve quality of life for clients with dementia and their caregivers. Here are nine benefits that animal-assisted interventions can offer when incorporated into the care of clients with dementia.
Individuals with dementia are likely to suffer from anxiety and depression due to functional decline and the loss of ability to live independently. Individuals’ roles and identities change drastically with this diagnosis and the effects of dementia. If individuals are unsafe or unable to be cared for in their own homes, they may move into long-term care facilities. This further alters the individual’s routine and adds to the confusion and anxiety. Studies have found that adding animal-assisted activities at Alzheimer’s care centers has the ability to increase relaxation and decrease client anxiety and depression.
Individuals with dementia withdraw from leisure activities and social participation at a faster rate than their same-aged peers who do not have dementia. Structured and planned social interaction is recommended for these individuals, and research highlights the ability of AAI to increase social interaction. Interacting with a non-judgmental animal provides a safe space for social contact. Additionally, the presence of a therapy animal in a common area may bring multiple clients together and facilitate interaction where it may not have occurred otherwise.
Loss of memory, confusion, and anxiety can present as agitation in individuals with dementia. When the sun begins to set, increased activity and agitation is especially notable. This phenomenon extends into the evening and is known as “sundowning.” Experts suggest providing reassurance in a calm and caring manner while providing a safe area for physical activity during episodes of sundowning. Providing animal-assisted interventions in the late afternoon is a viable option for decreasing agitated behaviors during this time. Studies have found that animal-assisted activities can decrease agitation in these clients overall, even outside of the sundowning hours.
Healthcare providers recommend offering opportunities for reminiscence to maintain cognitive functioning in clients with dementia. Reminiscence is commonly promoted through listening to music from earlier years or looking at family photos. Many people have had a pet at some point in their lives, so providing interaction with a therapy animal is another way to facilitate cognitive stimulation in clients with dementia.
A safe outlet for physical activity and movement is highly recommended for individuals with dementia. Previously active clients may experience a decline in physical activity due to loss of ability to remain oriented to their surroundings. However, with the help of a caregiver or facility staff member, incorporating walks around the facility or games of fetch with a therapy animal may offer an incentive to stay active.
Providing a client with dementia with routine and structure is an evidence-based way to decrease agitation and maintain cognitive functioning. A therapy animal may be a welcome addition to an existing routine (such as reminiscing or physical activity as mentioned above). Or, if the animal and handler are able, setting up consistent visits to the same client or facility may help this population.
Decrease in attention and ability to remain focused is a classic symptom of dementia. Animal-assisted activities can provide a novel experience to these individuals and can keep them grounded in the present moment. Activities that involve a combination of movement and sensory stimulation through touch or smell are indicated for clients in this population. Petting an animal is a prime example of a sensorimotor activity to increase attention and awareness.
Language deficits are a hallmark symptom of dementia, and this can make it increasingly difficult for individuals to connect with humans around them as the disease progresses. Animal-assisted activities offer the perfect backdrop for nonjudgmental interaction. A person with language deficits is able to vocalize to the animal (without it needing to make “sense” to other people), or can simply enjoy the company of another being without pressure to use verbal language.
The progressive decline of a client with dementia is notably difficult to people providing care for the individual. Fortunately, as discussed, animal-assisted interventions can decrease the negative symptoms associated with dementia, including depression, anxiety, and agitation. This, along with providing positive opportunities for physical activity, social interaction, and reminiscence, can remove some of the burden from caregivers, even for a short period of time. When these services are offered in a facility, caregivers may also have to opportunity to take a short break and experience some of the anxiety-reducing effects of AAI themselves.
With experience, you’ll find that working with this population can be very rewarding. Many Pet Partners teams are already doing work with clients in memory care, and it’s a great opportunity to bring the benefits of the human-animal bond to this special type of client.
Pet Partners offers a continuing education course, Visiting Clients with Alzheimer’s, which is valuable for anyone considering offering AAI for people who have Alzheimer’s. Visit our Online Education page to learn more.
American Occupational Therapy Association Press (2014). Neurodegenerative Diseases. Pg 23-34.
Peluso, S., De Rosa, A., De Lucia, N., Antenora, A., Illario, M., Esposito, M., & De Michele, G. (2018). Animal-assisted therapy in elderly patients: Evidence and controversies in dementia and psychiatric disorders and future perspectives in other neurological diseases. Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, 31(3), 149-157.
Perkins, J., Bartlett, H., Travers, C., & Rand, J. (2008). Dog-assisted therapy for older people with dementia: A review. Australasian Journal on Ageing, 27(4), 177-182.