The Benefits of Animal Therapy for Older Adults Living with Dementia

There are many ways that senior men and women can go about improving their health. Regular exercise, proper dieting, and routine medical checkups are among the most important and well-known ways to ensure optimal health well into the golden years of life.

However, recent research suggests that socialization is also vital for seniors who want to stay sharp mentally and physically as they age. For many of us, this hardly comes as news. Spending time around those we love increases our quality of life and stimulates our minds and bodies in a myriad of ways.

"Those we love" don’t just include people. Our pets and the animals we encounter every day also have positive impacts on our life. Here, the research concurs again. Recent studies have shown that controlled exposure to animals is an excellent way to improve the health of seniors in a myriad of areas.

In this article, our professionals at St. Paul’s Senior Services discuss the many benefits of animal therapy for seniors.

What is Animal Therapy for Seniors?

Animal therapy for seniors, also known as Animal Assisted Therapy, is a technique that uses animals to interact with seniors for numerous reasons to help improve their health and quality of life overall.

Studies show that just 15 minutes with a trained dog, cat, or another service animal can increase brain activity and serotonin levels in seniors. (Serotonin is known as “the feel-good hormone” and plays a crucial role in bodily function as well as our experiences of positive emotions.)

Routine exposure to animals through pet therapy also has many other health-related benefits, detailed below.

THE MENTAL BENEFITS OF ANIMAL THERAPY FOR SENIORS

Starting with the mental benefits of animal therapy for seniors, we need only to look at the way animals make most of us feel to understand why exposure to them may be good for our brains. Put simply, animals make us happy. They reduce stress, while simultaneously increasing alertness.

For seniors, many of whom deal with daily difficulties and sobering diagnoses on a routine basis, an animal’s company can provide emotional stability during stressful situations, helping to reduce anxiety and depression. Caring for an animal such as a cat or dog can also help increase a senior individual’s self-confidence and self-esteem, giving them a way to feel useful and responsible for something.

Similarly, routine exposure to animals can help increase seniors’ socialization skills. By nature, animals listen without judgment and give unbiased affection. This can be especially helpful for seniors who may desire to share the thoughts they may not be comfortable telling family or friends. For individuals living with dementia who may have difficulty using language, animals can be soothing and can even help these individuals speak and articulate themselves when comfortable.

As mentioned above, exposure to animals in intimate, controlled environments has been shown to increase the production and release of serotonin in the bodies of seniors. In addition to making them feel good and improving their cognitive performance, serotonin release can lead to a number of physical benefits as well. In fact, Animal Assisted Therapy is a great way to keep seniors in peak physical condition overall. Learn why in the following section.

THE PHYSICAL BENEFITS OF ANIMAL THERAPY FOR SENIORS

In addition to the many benefits, animals can have on the minds of seniors, animal therapy can also help improve seniors’ physical well-being. In fact, research conducted in a 2014 study showed that seniors with heart conditions who own pets tended to outlive those who didn’t.

Activities such as dog walking provide much-needed physical exercise, which contributes to better heart health, improved mobility, and a healthier lifestyle overall. As touched on in the previous section, simply having something to pet and touch can relax seniors. Relaxation reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and stabilizes heart rate.

Animal Assisted Therapy allows seniors to take advantage of the benefits that owning a pet affords — without the extra hassle and responsibility that also comes pet ownership. However, that’s not to say that all pet chores are unhealthy.

In fact, activities like feeding and grooming can help increase seniors’ physical skills and help them become more active. This is precisely why most Animal Assisted Therapy programs include these activities during outreach with seniors.

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