“It’s funny how
dogs and cats know the insides of folks better than
other folks do, isn’t it?” With those words written in
1912, Pollyanna author Eleanor Porter foreshadowed what
many of our nation’s leading long-term care facilities
have learned only recently, that animals hold the one of
the keys to graceful aging.
wouldn’t be until 79 years later, in 1991, that
Geriatrician Dr. William Thomas would formulate the Eden
Alternative, a long-term nursing care approach designed
with the idea of home sweet home in mind. Dr. Thomas
countered the long-held belief that disease, disability
and decline are the purview of the older generation,
stating instead that the real problems for our elders
are loneliness, helplessness and boredom, all of which
lead to spiritual decay. In New York’s Chase Memorial
Nursing Home where he piloted his program by introducing
“close and continuing contact with plants, animals and
children,” "the mortality rate (decreased) by more than
15%, medication use … declined significantly, nurse aide
turnover dropped by 26% and residents' loneliness,
helplessness and boredom … yielded to companionship,
self-sufficiency and … a sense of joy." Say Eden
Alternative founders, “We must teach ourselves to see
(long-term care) environments as habitats for human
beings rather than facilities for the frail and elderly.
We must learn what Mother Nature has to teach us about
the creation of vibrant, vigorous habitats. The Eden
Alternative™ shows us how companion animals, the
opportunity to give meaningful care to other living
creatures, and the variety and spontaneity that mark an
enlivened environment can succeed where pills and
In addition to
the Eden Alternative, there is research aplenty
substantiating the place and importance of animals in
long-term care facilities. Geriatric researchers from
the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, published a
study showing that elderly people who own pets are more
active than those who do not. They hypothesized that the
care-giving aspect of pet ownership gives owners purpose
and responsibility and makes them more active
day-to-day. Additionally, they said pet ownership helps
counter social isolation and that for those elders who
do not have a strong network of friends and family but
who are pet owners, inevitable life crises are handled
There are many
ways to enjoy pets in the wide variety of senior
facilities available today. Many permit individual pet
ownership. Some facilities actually have “house” pets.
For those who can’t or choose not to own their own pet,
there are organizations like Therapy Dogs International
and Pets On Wheels who will bring pets in for visits.
Carefully selected animals, accompanied by their owners,
visit a wide range of facilities including nursing homes
and long-term care facilities. The result? Great
happiness, contentment and sometimes even a rekindling
of childhood memories from otherwise reticent elders.
When an animal first appears on the scene at a long-term
care facility, surprise is quickly replaced by smiles,
and the animals respond with great affection and
excitement. Indeed, everyone benefits! Whether it’s pet
therapy or just a friendly visit, sharing animals with
our seniors has proven to be a wonderful mechanism of
healing and hope.
Let’s face it.
There’s just something about that furry paw on your leg
or the soulful eyes of a much-loved dog. A 1999 study in
the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed
independent seniors with pets tend to have better
physical health and mental wellbeing, are more active
and better handlers of stress. “Exactly why?” you may
ask. Consider the routines of pet ownership. The little
critters are dependent, after all, and must be fed,
groomed and exercised. It is in the accomplishment of
these duties, say experts, that our elders are kept
busy, entertained and fulfilled, their cardiovascular
systems and limbs benefiting in real ways that may help
prolong life, provide purpose and engender satisfaction.
It’s a fact that simply petting animals can lead to
decreased heart rate, temperature and blood pressure.
And take it from a pet lover, talking to those
four-legged creatures is sometimes better than an
involved conversation with your best friend. Animals
listen, provide a warm, furry place to ponder and don’t
talk back. Research has shown that pets counter the
social isolation so many of our seniors suffer by simply
being there for their owners. Daily interaction with
pets can counter depression, and the day-to-day demands
of pet ownership provide purpose and a reason to get up
each day. Finally, pets in their own inimitable way
encourage routine (after all, groceries must be
purchased, litter boxes cleaned and walks taken) and in
this way, elderly owners must adhere to a regular
routine which in turn means predictable meal times and
bed times, essential components of a life well lived.
If there’s a senior in your life
you think might benefit from individual pet ownership,
be sure to ask first whether he or she wants to take on
the responsibility and feels up to the demands pet care
giving will entail. And by all means, take them with you
when you go shopping. They may love something about a
pet that you would have never noticed. As a caregiver,
though, be sure to think through whether you’ll be
equipped to take the pet on if the older person in your
life can no longer care for it.
Whether pet ownership is an option
or visiting pets fill the bill better, remember the key.
Furry, friendly favorites of people everywhere, animals
alleviate loneliness, helplessness and boredom. And
that’s what the Eden Alternative celebrates on behalf of
senior citizens everywhere.
Alternative Ten Guiding Principles
1991 by Geriatrician Dr. William Thomas, the Eden
Alternative is a nursing care approach that presents
long-term care facilities as habitats for human beings
rather than facilities for the frail and elderly. To
that end, these are their ten guiding principles:
1. The three plagues of loneliness,
helplessness and boredom account for the bulk of
suffering among our elders.
An elder-centered community commits to creating a human
habitat where life revolves around close and continuing
contact with plants, animals and children. It is these
relationships that provide the young and old alike with
a pathway to a life worth living.
Loving companionship is the antidote to loneliness.
Elders deserve easy access to human and animal
An elder-centered community creates opportunity to give
as well as receive care. This is the antidote to
An elder-centered community imbues daily life with
variety and spontaneity by creating an environment in
which unexpected and unpredictable interactions and
happenings can take place. This is the antidote to
Meaningless activity corrodes the human spirit. The
opportunity to do things that we find meaningful is
essential to human health.
Medical treatment should be the servant of genuine human
caring, never its master.
An elder-centered community honors its elders by
de-emphasizing top-down bureaucratic authority, seeking
instead to place the maximum possible decision-making
authority into the hands of the elders or into the hands
of those closest to them.
Creating an elder-centered community is a never-ending
process. Human growth must never be separated from human
leadership is the lifeblood of any struggle against the
three plagues. For it, there can be no substitute.
875 124th Ave NE, Ste 101
Bellevue, WA 98005
(425) 226-7357 (8:30 a.m. - 4:30
p.m. PST, Monday - Friday)
(425) 235-1076 (fax)
Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy
P.O. Box 4115,
Oceanside, CA 92052
Phone (760) 740-2326
Therapy Dogs, Inc., (TD Inc.) (Dogs
Box 5868 Cheyenne, WY 82003
Phone: 877-843-7364 (toll free)
International, Inc. (TDI, Inc.) (Dogs only)
88 Bartlett Rd.,
Flanders, NJ 07836
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