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Could animal assisted therapy improve your parent’s health?

We explore the potential benefits of pet therapy as a way to relax and encourage our parents wherever they reside.

As our parents get older, and perhaps begin to lose their friends and loved ones, they could start to feel lonely. With recent figures suggesting that loneliness is fast becoming an epidemic among the elderly in the UK, pet- or animal-assisted therapy is becoming increasingly recognised as a positive activity.

What is pet therapy?

Animal -assisted therapy is the use of animal interaction to help support, comfort and encourage someone who is dealing with mental or physical difficulties.

Petting, cuddling or even just sitting with an animal can have a positive effect on your parent’s health. The animal acts as their social support, helping to boost their confidence when they feel anxious in new situations or environments.

Who can benefit?

Pet therapy can be transformative for those who’re perhaps withdrawn or depressed and struggle with human interaction. Animals are said to have a calming influence, providing an unconditional love that makes people more comfortable and able to engage with others.

Animal-assisted therapy also appears to be an effective form of therapy for those living with dementia. Initiatives such as Dementia Dogs and Pets As Therapy are based on the principle that pet therapy promotes physical and emotional health, especially when in partnership with other more traditional treatment plans.

According to Dementia Dogs:

It [the programme] aims to prove that dogs can help people with dementia maintain their waking, sleeping and eating routine, remind them to take medication, improve confidence, keep them active and engaged with their local community, as well as providing a constant companion who will reassure when facing new and unfamiliar situations.

While this form of therapy has been shown to be beneficial for many older people, it may not work for everyone. Animal-assisted therapy can be complementary but shouldn’t be used in place of medical treatment for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, or in the event of a stroke.

Are there any care homes that use pet therapy?

Being parted from a pet can be a devastating experience for an ageing parent and one that could be detrimental to their mental and physical health. Making the decision to move your parent into care is not an easy one but choosing the right place for them and their pet may ease the transition.

The Society for Companion Animal Studies has launched the Pets for Life campaign to urge housing and care providers to review their pet policies to ensure the elderly are able to keep their pets with them when moving into care.

There are already thousands of dogs and a number of cats registered for visits to care homes, nursing homes, hospitals and hospices.

Pet therapy at home

Pet therapy for those still at home is also growing in recognition. The charity Equal Arts, for example, recently won a lottery grant to extend nationwide its HenPower initiative. This encourages older people to be involved in hen keeping as a way of reducing isolation and increasing health and wellbeing.

It’s an approach that many families already know and understand. A parent who has always kept a pet will continue to enjoy their company if the right help can be provided for dog walking or visits to the vet, for example. The Cinammon Trust, a national charity for the elderly, terminally ill and their pets, offers practical help for day-to-day challenges of keeping a pet, aiming to relieve owners of anxiety and promote unimpeded enjoyment of the experience.

The good news is that if a parent has learned to appreciate an animal’s companionship, with the right choices, that relationship can continue. For those who have yet to learn the delights of pets, the work of pet therapists could help them to relax and enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing.


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