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Dementia and Animal Companionship

Posted by Karen Thompson on

Joining us as a guest author on the blog today is MA candidate Allie Serota. You can follow along with Allie's research on her twitter.  

People love their pets – so much so, that many consider their animals to be friends or family members, often enjoying a special place in the household. In fact, the reason most people choose to have an animal is for the companionship they provide.[1]Dogs are particularly accepting and compassionate friends, and many possess the ability to pick up on our emotions without us having to say anything at all. This affection and company can be a very important source of social support, love, and friendship. Indeed, for persons living with dementia, an animal may become one of the most important relationships in their life.[2]

Due to the unfortunate stigma associated with dementia, some people report that they are treated differently by friends and family members after sharing their diagnosis. More drastically, some people acknowledge feeling abandoned by friends and family altogether. [3]While stigma may negatively impact human social relationships, other relationships may become more important, such as those with animal companions.[2]The love expressed by companion animals makes people feel safe and accepted. Animals make ideal companions, as they generally enjoy our company, listen intently, and do not pass judgments. [4]

Some persons living with dementia displayed increased affection and emotional closeness with their companion animals and developed these closer relationships after the onset of dementia.[2] Animals promote calmness, and persons with dementia were found to be more relaxed when a companion animal lived in their home.[2] Animals also provide a source of connection and focus attention; interacting with animals does not rely on language, a skill often impacted by dementia. People with dementia may enjoy spending time simply holding or petting their animals, being in each other’s company. It has been noted that some spouses adopt animals specifically for their partners with dementia, with the intent of providing comfort and support.[2]While adopting a dog or cat is obviously not feasible or practical for all families, research does support benefits to both persons living with dementia and their care partners.[2]

Beyond companionship, caring for an animal enables individuals to continue to be purposeful and relevant. We must get up in the morning to walk the dog and feed the cat; making us accountable to something beyond ourselves and contributing to the care of another. Persons with dementia can and do contribute meaningfully to a number of relationships, and importantly give love. Highlighting the significance of relationships with animals is important because it can challenge perceptions of persons with dementia merely as recipients of care.

Dr. Bill Thomas of the Eden Alternative states: “The real value of the human-animal bond comes from an enduring, caring relationship with a pet.” [5]It is the development and maintenance of caring relationships that makes them so meaningful and important. Now, this is not to suggest that everyone benefits from animal companionship, especially if someone has never enjoyed the company of dogs or cats earlier in life. But rather, that relationships with our furry friends can be especially significant friendships, particularly among persons living with dementia.

If you or your loved one has a story to share of your animals, please comment below – we would love to hear about it!

 

[1]Robinson, I. (1995). The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interaction: Benefits and Responsibilities of Pet Ownership. Robinson, I. (Ed). Oxford, U.K.: Pergamon.

[2]Connell, C. M., Janevic, M.R., Solway, E., & McLaughlin, S.J. (2007). Are pets a source of support or added burden for married couples facing dementia? Journal of Applied Gerontology, 26(5):472-485.

[3]Sterin, G.J. (2002). Essay on a word: A lived experience of Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia, 1, 7-10.

[4]Anderson, P. E. (2008). The Powerful Bond between People and Pets: Our Boundless Connections to Companion Animals. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

[5]Thomas, W.H. (1996). Life worth living: How someone you love can still enjoy life in a nursing home: The Eden Alternative in Action. Acton, MA: VanderWyk & Burnham.

 


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