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How Pets Help People with Dementia Live Higher-Quality Lives

A joyful wagging tail enticing you to embark on a walking adventure. A silky-smooth coat to lovingly stroke, keeping idle hands busy. An affectionate nudge to remind you without words you’re not alone. These are just some of the reasons having pets makes so much sense for seniors, including those in the early to mid-stages of dementia.

 Therapy animals and community pets have become more commonplace in the senior living setting, thanks to a growing body of research that supports the healing power of companion animals for seniors.

 Studies suggest even therapeutic visits as short as 15 minutes can have a positive impact. However, living with a pet on a more permanent basis offers ongoing advantages that can be particularly helpful for someone navigating the emotional challenges and frustration common in the early stages of dementia. That’s why at The Ridge, we welcome pets in our memory care apartments.

Senior woman spending time with her granddaughter and pet dog

How Pets Can Help

For someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, a pet can provide much-needed emotional support. Animals’ nonverbal  communication and steadfast companionship can be reassuring for those who struggle to recall words and engage in conversation — common challenges in the early stages of dementia. The loving affection and simple acceptance from a pet come without demands or expectations the senior may not be able to deliver.

 Relieve stress. Multiple studies have shown correlations between time spent with pets and shifts in feel-good hormones. Brain activity and “feel good” serotonin levels go up when you spend time with animals, and simply petting a dog can nudge up your oxytocin (another feel-good hormone) while cortisol, a leading stress hormone, goes down. Agitation and fidgeting are common symptoms for dementia patients; having a dog or cat to stroke quietly and methodically can help ease those anxious behaviors.

 Inspire happiness. Irritability and depression often go hand in hand  with dementia, but pets have a way of working past those barriers. A beloved pet can invite joy into a difficult stage of life. Unconditional love and affection — peppered with a few slobbery kisses and some satisfied purrs — are powerful tools to break through the emotional obstacles many people with dementia experience.

 Improve self-esteem. The act of caring for a pet that returns the favor with affection and loyalty can establish a powerful sense of purpose. Similarly, in taking on the responsibility of caring for a pet, a person with dementia who has been fussed over and cared for may feel empowered by the opportunity to step into the role of caregiver for a pet.

 Encourage independence. Pets require ongoing care, and the call to provide for a beloved pet can serve as motivation to stay active. Having a consistent and relatively simple set of tasks to accomplish can help a person with dementia continue to practice skills that help them stay engaged in daily living.

 Promote routines. People with dementia tend to find comfort in familiar routines and patterns; the same is true of pets. A pet that thrives on regular walks, feeding times and grooming rituals is likely to give obvious cues when it’s time for certain activities, and these alerts can help a senior keep up with a schedule that is soothing for both of them.

senior woman builds tower of wooden blocks with volunteer assistant and her dog in nursing home.

Best Pets for Someone with Dementia

Despite the many advantages of pets for people with dementia , you’ll have many questions to consider, whether you’re continuing to accommodate a pet that’s already part of the family or thinking about taking on a new pet. You’ll want to evaluate relevant factors, including  the stage of dementia, the person’s abilities and interest in caring for an animal, and options for safely rehoming the animal if circumstances change.

 Another question is whether you prefer a companion animal or service pet, such as a dementia assistance dog. This type of service dog is specially trained to assist a person with dementia, such as helping with routines, providing reminders about medication, offering sensory stimulation, knowing how to get “home” from a walk, and more.

 Living conditions are also an important consideration. Chances are good that as dementia symptoms progress, moving to memory care could become a necessity. Thinking ahead about the best dog breeds for apartment living, or alternatives like cats, birds or small animals, will make that transition more successful.

Senior man in a wheelchair petting a dog with his caregiver behind him

Pet-Friendly Memory Care

Pet-friendly senior living communities are relatively common, but allowing pets within a memory care community is far less so. In fact, The Ridge communities in Colorado and Utah are among the nation’s very few communities to welcome pets at all levels of care, including memory care.

 Our pet-friendly communities’ personalized approach to memory care fosters independence for as long as possible while providing the comforts of home and the compassion of family. Contact us to learn more about how we strive to create positive days and peaceful nights for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.