Caring for a Pet Can Help People With Alzheimer's
Last updated: October 2022
During the pandemic, my mom moved from another state to live with my family and me. She has an Alzheimer's diagnosis and was struggling to live on her own. But it was a 2-for-1 package because my mom's dog also came with her! Beauty is a sizeable Akita-German Shepherd rescue dog with a mind of her own.
We looked at every option for getting both Mom and Beauty here. The dog was too big to fly on a plane, so we rented a car and made the long drive with everyone back to our home. The 2-for-1 deal was non-negotiable because my mom's dog is so important to her and her health. My mom's pet is a part of her care.
Pets are a lot of work, and sometimes it's tough on the already heavy burden of dementia caregiving. But the benefits of having a furry companion are widely researched and undeniably helpful to those living with the disease. Pets - both live and robotic - provide emotional support, encourage physical and social activity, and can even improve the cognitive functions of those living with dementia.
Pets don't care if you have dementia
Animals are well-known for their ability to soothe, comfort, and bring joy to people. Therapy dogs visit hospital-bound patients and bring smiles to the faces of those fighting disease or illness. Hotels know that "man's best friend" often travels with us, so there are pet-friendly rooms and vacation homes.
Pets do not ask us to remember the past or perform complicated tasks - all things difficult for those living with dementia. They have low expectations and high generosity. They are there, ready to cuddle, excited to go for a walk, and eager for a treat and a pat on the head.
Pets can improve owners' physical health
Recent dementia research on pets shows significant benefits for those living with dementia. A review in the journal BMC Psychiatry found that compared to a control group, those with animal-assisted therapy (AAT) had less risk of falls and improved balance because they had to bend down to pick up a ball or lean forward to pet the dog.1
My mom's dog gives her a reason to wake up in the morning, as she needs to be fed and given fresh water. My mom is in her late 70s now, but she still walked Beauty 3 or sometimes 4 times a day. It was a great excuse to get fresh air and exercise, something we all need but especially those living with dementia.
Pets can provide cognitive and emotional support
The same study also showed improved short-term memory and communication skills, less depression and sundowning syndrome, and reduced loneliness. Another study found that having a pet at home may actually slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.2
For my mom, her dog is meaningful on so many levels. Mom has been a widow for over ten years, and her dog has been her constant companion. When my dad suddenly passed away, her dog kept her tethered to the world and drew her out of her grief.
When she had to move out of her childhood home, and away from the town she had lived in her whole life, she was able to bring a very important piece of home with her: her dog. Her pet gives her purpose and responsibility, a sense of familiarity in a world that is increasingly more and more confusing because of the disease.
Robot pets can also help those with dementia
Dogs are not always the right fit for a person with dementia. There are risks and a lot of work involved in caring for an animal, and many senior facilities don't allow them.
Amazingly, robotic animals provide similar benefits for those living with dementia. Many companies have developed real, interactive robotic pets specifically for those living with the disease.
A study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that the PARO robot animal decreased depression and anxiety in a group of elderly clients with dementia and reduced their use of pain and psychoactive medications.3
Loved ones might need a little help
Not every person living with dementia can take care of a pet. Sometimes they might need to get visits from another person's pet without any responsibility of caring for their own. Or sometimes, they might need a little help from loved ones to care for their animal friend.
Mom recently moved into a senior home, and sadly Beauty was not allowed to move in too. So Beauty is at home with us, just a few minutes away, and still enjoys visits and walks with her owner.
Caring for someone else's (very large) pet is a lot of work. There are vet visits, feeding and medicine to stay on top of, lots of walks, and yard cleanup. We drive Beauty or my mom back and forth for visits, which takes time and planning. We have to plan for Beauty's care in advance while we're out of town.
I also know that someday, Mom won't be able to take her for walks anymore. But we are glad to support my mom and her furry friend for now - anything that makes the journey of living with Alzheimer's a little bit easier.
Has a furry companion been helpful in your family's Alzheimer's journey?
Do you think businesses can better accommodate individuals living with Alzheimer's and their caregivers?