Social isolation and loneliness among the elderly as serious mental health issues have come to the forefront amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many seniors live alone, may have family members unable to visit due to the recent pandemic, while others are too frail to venture out on their own and rely on their home health care aides for companionship in addition to the services they provide. Pet therapy can help augment the mental, emotional and physical support seniors need, particularly for patients receiving home health care.
In fact, pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, has been used for anxiety, dementia and more. This form of therapy uses pets to offer the elderly both a form of companionship and treatment, with the goal of improving an individual’s emotional, social, or cognitive abilities. Seniors coming into consistent contact with pets have been found to feel less lonely, visit the doctor less frequently, use less medication, recover more quickly from surgery and illness, have lower blood pressure and cholesterol and deal with stress much better, as their cortisol levels are reduced.
Animals trained in pet therapy can also help patients improve their motor skills and their ability to remember events. It’s been found that many seniors who may be typically unresponsive to other forms of therapy become livelier and more talkative with pets nearby. Pets can also be used to encourage individuals to be more active as a result of petting, brushing and, if possible, walking the animal. A pet encourages the senior to be more interactive and to feel needed.
Animals used for pet therapy have basic obedience training and are also trained in understanding how to interact with elderly who use wheelchairs, crutches, and other mobility aids. There are several variations of pet therapy. The most common form is visitation therapy where the animal (typically a dog or cat) will visit the patient in a nursing home, assisted living facility or in a home health care environment. In a home-therapy model, the animal and handler come regularly for one-on-one visits. It’s important for the family to pay attention to the certification standards for animals and handlers before deciding on the use of pet therapy for an at-home patient. Using animals as healers, while assisting the elderly population with coping and providing comfort, is just another way for society to care for our aging population.
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