Pets and Engaging Those Living with Alzheimer's
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There is substantial research supporting the notion that activities involving pets (and in some cases stuffed animals) can be beneficial to people living with Alzheimer’s. These activities usually reach those in the latest stages of the disease—even when they no longer talk or recognize loved ones. Here is some down-to-earth, practical advice on how to involve pets and stuffed animals to engage, comfort, communicate with, and bring joy to your loved one who is living with dementia.
These tips are based on my personal experience as a caregiver, articles and books I have published, articles and books published by other specialists in Alzheimer’s care, and information from interviews with national experts.
Advice for Activities Using Pets
- Only use pets who are well behaved and interact well with the person. (Heerema, Vann)
- Use the type of pet (dog, cat, or other) the person may have had before developing Alzheimer’s. (Marley & Potts)
- If possible, involve a pet the person knows. (Marley & Potts)
- Bathe the pet—if it’s a dog—before the visit. (Vann)
- Have treats available for the person to give the pet. (Vann)
- Give the person some responsibility for pet care, such as brushing or feeding the animal. (Bell & Troxel)
- Be flexible and end the pet visit if your loved one or the pet doesn’t enjoy it. (Vann)
- If visiting your loved one in a care community, you may want to allow time to take the pet around for other residents to enjoy the pet’s company. Many of them will love it! (Marley)
Advice for Conducting Activities Using Stuffed Animals
- Do not force a stuffed animal on a person who doesn’t want it. (Marley)
- Stuffed animals are more likely to benefit people in the mid- and late-stages of Alzheimer’s who may not be aware that the stuffed animal is not a real pet. (Marley)
- Interact with your loved one and the stuffed animal. (Marley)
- Don’t use the stuffed animal as a babysitter. (Marley)
- Buy a stuffed animal made especially for the elderly or people with Alzheimer’s (Marley)
Where to Purchase Stuffed Animals for the Elderly and People Who Have Alzheimer’s:
Joy for All (Extremely lifelike mechanical cat and dog for elderly people)
Memorable Pets (Various stuffed animals made especially for people with Alzheimer’s)
Some family members, staff and experts on Alzheimer’s care believe that giving a childlike toy to someone with Alzheimer’s is beneath the dignity of the person and shouldn’t be done. But many change their minds once they see the person’s positive reaction. I asked my panel of experts about this issue. The Brenners stated, “We’re for anything that gets people with dementia to open up and be present.” Irene Moore told me “If family members or staff of care communities are upset by it, they should step aside. The reaction of the person with Alzheimer’s is what matters.” Finally, Rachael Wonderlin believes that you have to change how you communicate with a person who has dementia. “For them the doll [or stuffed animal] may be their whole world,” she said.
One of My Personal Experiences Involving Pets: I volunteer to visit some ladies with Alzheimer’s at a local memory care community. One day I took my little puppy to visit my favorite lady, Ruth, who was a grand dog lover. Ruth was ecstatic and we played with Christina together endlessly. When I left, Ruth looked at me and proclaimed loudly, “This is my best day since I’ve lived here!”
One of My Personal Experiences Involving Stuffed Animals: I took Ed, my beloved life partner of 30 years, an endless procession of stuffed animals. He loved each one more than the last. Then I made up games that we played with them. It was wonderful and formed the basis to connect with each other on a deeper level than ever before.
Interviews Conducted for this Article:
- Tom and Karen Brenner, authors of ‘You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care.’
- Rachael Wonderlin, Author of ‘When Someone You Know Is Living in a Dementia Care Community.’ She also has a blog—Demenita By Day.
- Irene Moore, MSW, Professor Emerita, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and former Director of the University of Cincinnati – Maple Knoll Village Geriatric Evaluation Center.
- Madeline Vann, How Animal Therapy Helps Dementia Patients.
- Virginia Bell & David Troxel. Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care
- Marie Marley & Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN. Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers.
- Esther Heerema. How Does Pet Therapy Benefit People With Dementia?
Marie Marley is the award-winning author of Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy, and the co-author (with neurologist Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN) of Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers. She is a founding member of the ActivistsAgainstAlzheimer’s Network. Her website (ComeBackEarlyToday.com) contains a wealth of helpful information for Alzheimer’s caregivers.