alt=an older woman smiles and reaches out to three happy dogs approaching her.

The Favorite Visitors: Animals and Alzheimer's Disease

Especially in these pandemic times, we all love when we’re able to have safe visits in person with our loved ones. Virtual visits are important, but they’re just not always the same, even if you’re having safer contact-free visits anyway. But today, these in-person visitors aren’t the ones I’m talking about. Because for my grandma, who is my family member affected by Alzheimer's disease, while she loves her human visitors… we aren’t her favourites. Oh no, no, no.

Her favourite visitors are furry, have four legs, and don’t communicate in words. Yep, that’s right, they’re dogs!

The benefits of pet therapy

While it’s been a long time since my grandma has had a dog herself, she's not much happier than when she has a dog visitor come by! Whether it’s my uncle bringing his little dogs by for a physically distant backyard visit, my aunt popping by with her one hundred pound golden retriever, Eli, or having my guide dog Murray come to visit me on a mini-vacation from his pandemic-induced decrease in workload, few things brighten my grandma’s day like a visit from a doggo! I mean, I can completely relate to that!

There is certainly a reason that pet therapy or “pet visits” can be a popular activity in care homes, hospitals, and hospices. Science indicates animals can not only help us maintain better physical health, but they also can prevent loneliness, which is of particular importance when we think of older adults.1 Of course, these benefits were studied in regard to pet ownership, not regular - or irregular! - visits with pets.

In a study of people with Alzheimer's disease who were provided pet therapy, research indicates that those who received the intervention - and spent time with animals - had improved scores on geriatric depression scales compared to those in the control group.2

A dose of distraction, love, and a bit of slobber

Based on my own observations and those of my family, we know that the dogs we take to visit my grandma are certainly some of her favourite visitors, and that creates some of her favourite visits with us.

I’d think that this is because there’s just a different (positive) atmosphere in the room and a different focus. Instead of thinking about the things that need to be done, the things that are more difficult to do, having a pet in the picture provides a much-needed break from the effort of thinking and remembering. Also, a pet simply provides a distraction - a distraction filled with unconditional love, some laughs, and probably a bit of slobber. (In my grandma’s case, she also has carpal tunnel syndrome and has always said petting the dogs always makes her hands feel better for a while, too!)

No matter how bad of a day my grandma might have been having when someone walks in with a dog, it's usually at least a bit brighter when the dog leaves!

Have you taken pets to visit your loved one with Alzheimer's disease? Did it have a positive impact on your loved one or on your visit?

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