The Benefits of Therapeutic Animals for Seniors
For both kids and adults, pets can provide comfort, confidence and healing
ILLUSTRATION BY Alicyn MURPHY
When Lily walks into a room, heads turn. People always seem to smile at her, and despite a few gray hairs, men still occasionally whistle — women and children too. But she doesn’t mind the attention. You might even say she likes getting thrown a bone every once in a while.
Lily is one of the dogs who participates in the Paws for Pages program at the Concord Public Library. She, along with Sparkle, another therapy dog in the program, helps children who might have trouble reading to find their voice. Kids sit and read out loud to the dogs; the dogs listen and occasionally get pet. It’s a win-win.
Sparkle is a 10-year-old terrier who, despite being past the puppy stage, still exudes abundant energy. “Sparkle is happy doing the work that she is doing,” says Brenda Kern, 67, Sparkle’s handler and owner. “She lays down and goes to sleep — it relaxes her when kids read to her.” She adds that reading to a dog gets children over their self-consciousness of making mistakes. “I tell them ‘Be brave,’” says Kern. “‘Just say the word — even if it’s wrong, she won’t mind.’”
Research shows that dogs, cats and other animals can improve the outlook and health of people, including seniors. Hospice facilities, hospitals, assisted living and nursing homes, senior centers, mental health facilities, rehabilitation centers, even prisons have discovered the perks of pet-assisted therapy. The benefits to those who come in contact with animals include reduced blood pressure and stress levels, greater clarity and focus, and improved mood. Pets provide unconditional love and affection and ease trauma for those who have suffered from abuse, PTSD or a tragedy. They lighten loneliness and depression, and they tend to make people less bored and more social.
Bonni Taylor sees this firsthand at her job at Taylor Community in Laconia, an assisted living facility where she works part-time as a licensed nursing assistant on the weekends. Taylor had always owned dogs, but back when she was working full-time she says she always felt guilty about leaving them at home for 40 hours a week. Once she became semi-retired and her miniature Australian shepherd passed away, she thought about being able to bring a new dog with her to work. She floated the idea by the administration, it was approved, and she started researching breeds, finally choosing a standard poodle named Judd.
“Poodles have such a sunny disposition. They’re so good with people. They’re trainable and they learn quickly,” says Taylor. Judd fit right in, coming to work with Taylor at just 9 weeks old and eventually earning his therapy dog certifications through the Love on a Leash program. Late in 2010, Taylor got another poodle, a female named Mercy, who also came with Taylor to the retirement community. Sadly, Judd developed cancer and passed away a few years ago, but his legacy lives on as Mercy, along with Taylor’s new dog, Déjà, still continue to visit the residents at the center on the weekends.
And while some people are ecstatic to see them, and some don’t care one way or the other for her dogs, others can have a total change of heart. One resident in particular, says Taylor, had a lifelong fear of dogs, but after Taylor’s dog Judd died and the center had a memorial service for him, the woman approached Taylor and said that she would like to get to know Mercy. “She loves both my dogs now, and it’s made a big difference in her life,” says Taylor.
Kern has had a similar experience with dogs making a difference in people’s lives. “Every place you go, men and women say ‘I had a dog,’ and they tell you immediately about the dogs they have had, even if it was when they were a child. It opens up a conversation. They have an instant emotional feeling, and it’s good for people to have that feeling. If someone has a son that never visits them, they don’t want to talk about that. A dog has such a loving purpose, it just has to exist and doesn’t require anything of you.”
When she used to volunteer with Sparkle at the NH State Hospital’s Philbrook Center, a treatment facility for emotionally disturbed kids in Concord, she saw plenty of kids who needed that connection. “It was a reading program they gave as a privilege to kids who were doing well in their therapy or that they felt needed a boost of some kind,” says Kern. By petting Sparkle and engaging in their sense of touch, it helped them heal.
Dr. Jerilee Zezula, a retired veterinary professor at the UNH Thompson School, stumbled into animal-assisted therapy, as she prefers to call it, back in the mid-1980s when she visited her mother in a nursing home with some puppies from a litter she had been raising and saw how much the residents enjoyed it.
“I kept it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do more with it,” she says. When she started the small animal care program at UNH, she had to be creative about things to have the students do with no small animals on campus. So she contacted the New Hampshire SPCA and they formed a partnership with students in the school’s program to bring suitable animals to local nursing homes. After a raccoon rabies epidemic came to New England in the mid-90s, Zezula decided to work with only known animals and switched to the Pet Partners program, then known as the Delta Society, a national agency that registers and trains pet therapy animals. When she retired from teaching, she and a group of friends created ElderPet, a nonprofit community partner of Pet Partners, which continues on today.
“We go to assisted living homes, hospice and nursing homes, as well as reading programs,” says Zezula, “but we also do Study Buddies at UNH where we bring animals to the library during finals week for stress relief. Sometimes we do private visits to senior shut-ins, we do events, and even have done dialysis centers in the past.” Zezula cautions that not all dogs take to all venues. “You have to be able to evaluate the stress in your animal,” she says. Zezula, Taylor and Kern illustrate the flip side of the pet therapy coin: not only does pet-assisted therapy help seniors and others, but seniors also make the perfect candidates to become pet-assisted therapy volunteers. “We have a lot of seniors through the program,” says Zezula. “In fact, the majority of the people that really work with the program are retired. They’re our most dedicated volunteers.”
Kern believes that the need for pet-assisted therapy dogs is greater than there are dogs out there — she and the others have seen it firsthand — and that seniors should pursue the pet-assisted therapy path if it interests them. “It’s a connection to get out and socialize,” she says, “and it’s a commitment — that’s good, because it gets you out and makes you feel needed.” Along with everyday events, therapy dogs have been used during natural disasters like Katrina as well as during crises like after 9/11, the Newtown shootings and the Boston Marathon bombing.
“Who would have guessed? Twenty-five years ago you never had such a thing as therapy dogs,” says Kern. “Now there are unlimited possibilities and places for therapy dogs to go and things for them to do and be appreciated. People can even develop their own needs for therapy dogs. It’s a brave new world.”