For About and By Caregivers

Ask any Senior... How is a Dog like a Light Bulb?

By Joanna R. Leefer, MBA, GSC


Most pet lovers already know the answer. He lights up the room with his love. Senior care facilities think this way as well. Many nursing homes, assisted living residences, and senior centers offer visiting pet programs that allow residents to interact with animals. The results often turn into a love fest!

Vivian Stadel, a geriatric care manager and Brooklyn resident, has participated in the pet therapy program since 2008. Every month, she and her therapy dog, Einstein, visit the Norwegian Christian Nursing Home and Health Center in Brooklyn. For every visit, Einstein arrives in his official therapy vest and starts his tour of duty. First, he visits the administratorís office, then each of the three resident floors, stopping in every room for a short personal visit. The tour concludes in the activity lounge where he says his final farewell to the staff.

Ms. Stadel tells heartwarming stories of residents putting out their arms to welcome Einstein as he runs to greet them with licks, tail wags and the mutual gazes into each otherís eyes. Vivian admits that these visits benefit all involved. The residents are invigorated, Einstein loves all the attention, the staff is happy, and Vivian forgets all the daily worries such as bills, household and personal problems.

Tears come to her eyes as she remembers Einsteinís interaction with one of his favorite residents. As soon as Einstein sees the wheelchair bound gentleman, he races over and positions himself right next to his wheelchair for a hardy back scratch.

Many other Brooklyn Senior Facilities have similar programs. The Prospect Park Residence at One Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, NY, has a visiting dog program through the Good Dog Foundation. Every week, a therapy dog visits the Essentia floor, a floor reserved for residents with special needs. Menorah Nursing Home in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn has a visiting dog, Shadow, and Sunrise Senior Living at Sheepshead Bay has a pet dog in residence.

Nursing homes were one of the first settings to graciously open their doors to the concept of pet visits. Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a New Jersey founded organization, introduced one of the first visiting pet programs nearly 30 years ago. Such programs have been expanded to other facilities including hospitals, psychiatric wards and schools for autistic children.

The beneficial impact of pets and people has been documented for centuries. There is substantial evidence that the relationship between pets and people extends beyond simple companionship. The interaction can be physical, emotional and mental. An animal does not judge a person on his looks or disabilities, but responds totally to the interaction.

Visiting pets often get seniors to move more than they normally would, which increases their mobility. Other studies document that stress levels and blood pressure are reduced after playing with a pet.

This proves true when a visiting pet walks into a room full of seniors. Many senior homes, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living residents offer therapy dog programs to allow their inhabitants to share the joy of visiting with a pet. It often sparks memories and starts conversations about their own pets and stories from their earlier years.

The visiting pet program is not limited to dogs. It can include cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, parrots, domesticated rats and in some parts of the country, llamas, horses, goats, donkeys, pigs and chickens. Nancy George-Michalson, Therapy Animal Program Coordinator for Pet Partners, a nation-wide animal organization, mentioned that in New Jersey they have a potbelly pig named Sherman registered in the program. Sherman carries a basket balanced on his nose as he makes the rounds. Now, that brings a lot of smiles!

Not every animal is eligible for the visiting pet program. First, they must have the proper temperament. They must be friendly and patient, respond to commands, and not be distracted by loud noises. The pet must have acurrent rabies vaccination and license, and must be free of ticks and fleas.

The handler must also go through extensive training. They must follow a certain protocol, be courteous, and respect the privacy of patients. The final exam can often include simulating a chaotic environment similar to one that might occur in a nursing home. Both the pet and the handler are tested. The participants must enter into a room, ignore the stimulus, and remain calm. They are to ignore any other pet that is in the room. Only calm animals and handlers will receive certification.

If you are interested in becoming certified and providing pet therapy in a facility near you, there are several agencies that offer training a credentialing throughout the United States and Canada. Each program has slightly different certification requirements. For instance, Pet Partners (formerly called the Delta Society) requires recertification every two years. 

To get a pet therapy program started in your facility, check the Yellow Pages or go online to find providers in your area. You could also check other senior facilities and get names of pet therapy providers from them. One advantage of talking to other facilities is first hand references and recommendations. It may take a little work, but the smiles and happy faces will make it all worth it when you light up your facility!

Joanna Leefer is a senior care advisor and founder of ElderCareGiving, an agency that advises families on how to get the best care for their frail loved ones. Find out more at Her book, Almost Like Home: A Family Guide to Navigating the Nursing Home Maze, will be available in the fall of 2013.


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