According to the World Health Organization, nearly 50 million people have dementia worldwide. Dementia is a general term used to describe a variety of diseases that impact one’s ability to think and remember, which can interfere with everyday activities. In the later stages, confusion, depression, and anxiety are all common side effects of the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly 40% of people with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, suffer from significant depression.
Some researchers suggest that the biological changes caused by Alzheimer’s disease may intensify a predisposition to depression, which can have a strong effect on the quality of life. According to the Mayo Clinic, depression can lead to worsening cognitive decline, greater disability involving daily living skills, and increased dependence on caregivers.
While there are a variety of ways to treat depression and anxiety, pets have proven to be especially helpful for those with dementia. In addition to pacifying depression-related symptoms, researchers have suggested pets can have the ability to lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce the stress hormone cortisol, and increase the body’s natural mood booster, serotonin. Nursing homes and retirement communities across the nation have started to introduce pet therapy to residents who have dementia and other illnesses, finding that the power of pets is more than we might think.
Health Benefits of Owning a Pet for Those with Dementia
Animals make wonderful companions for those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Animals have a keen sense of knowing what people need and how to give it to them. In addition to relieving the symptoms of depression and anxiety, researchers have also suggested that pet therapy for dementia patients can help them reap many physical and emotional benefits, including:
Research has shown that spending time with pets can reduce negative behavioral changes throughout the day. In fact, in addition to releasing endorphins, the act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response that has a lasting calming effect.
As we age, it’s common for our diet and hunger cues to change. Many older adults struggle to fuel themselves properly, especially those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. However, some researchers have suggested that spending time with a pet can increase hunger and nutritional intake.
Increase in Physical Engagement
Animals are full of energy and need physical activity throughout the day. Tossing a ball or going on a walk is great for the animal and its companion. Physical activity can help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression while also promoting overall health and wellness.
Reduced Feelings of Loneliness
Loneliness among seniors is a public health concern and can be worsened by diseases such as dementia. However, simply petting an animal can provide a soothing presence and companionship similar to unconditional love.
Lowered Blood Pressure Levels
The American Heart Association has found that pet owners, or those who spend time visiting with pets regularly, have lower blood pressure and fewer heart-rate fluctuations than non-pet owners. Similarly, studies have found that pets can reduce blood pressure and tension.
Comfort and Safety
As dementia progresses, it’s not uncommon for older adults with the disease to feel unsafe or confused, especially during the nighttime. Pets can provide a sense of security for those who experience these feelings or for those who live alone.
What to Know Before Adopting a Pet
People with dementia can benefit greatly from owning a pet. However, as the disease progresses, taking care of a pet can become more difficult. Before you or a loved one with dementia decides to adopt a pet, there are a few things to consider.
Animals can live a long time, so if you’re choosing to adopt a young animal, it’s important to come up with a care plan to ensure it’ll be cared for throughout its life. It’s also crucial that the person will be able to meet the needs of the animal, including veterinarian visits, cleaning up after the animal, and feeding it regularly.
Some people with dementia, and their caregivers, may not be comfortable with interacting with animals. If you are considering adopting a pet on behalf of a friend or family member, make sure to consult with them and their caregiving team beforehand.
Alternatives to Pet Ownership
If you find that you might not be able to commit to owning a pet, many alternatives can still provide you with all the benefits of pet ownership. One popular option, especially for those in the later stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, is purchasing a robotic pet. Some robotic pets, like those from Joy For All Companion Pets, feel and look like real pets. These robotic pets can ease feelings of loneliness without all of the responsibility that comes with caring for a pet.
Pet therapy is also a great alternative, especially for those who live in a residential community. Many hospitals and long-term care communities partner with organizations to conduct regular visits to patients and residents. While these visits are short, there is evidence that just 15 minutes of bonding with an animal can increase levels of serotonin, which is our body’s natural “feel-good” hormone. Some organizations, such as Therapy Dogs International, will conduct home visits to those who live independently but are still interested in receiving pet therapy visits.
Oceana Memory Care at Inspīr focuses on personalized, wellness-focused lifestyle programming and customized care plans implemented by highly trained staff and a few certified furry companions. Gus, our therapy dog, visits weekly with Oceana residents. The impact and joy he has on their lives resonate on their faces as they smile and laugh when interacting with him.