Seniors Benefit from the Healing Power of Animals

April 28, 2020

“McLean is one of the industry leaders in utilizing animal assisted therapy in skilled care and especially in treating hospice patients,” explains Marilyn Douglas. Marilyn has been a trained Hospice Volunteer at McLean since 2008 when she began the program with her Yellow Lab, therapy dog, Ranger. Since that time, she has seen the program’s impact on a large number of patients, many who did not fully respond to other therapeutic treatments. She strongly believes that “the power of the animal-human bond in health care is to be recognized. Animals have a way of breaking through in a way to patients that is not otherwise possible.”

Animal-Assisted Therapy utilizes trained and registered handlers and their animals, who interact with patients in a structured, goal-oriented program. The teams regularly visit people who enjoy animals and who could benefit on a social, emotional or cognitive level. In many instances, it serves as a means of providing a potentially “less threatening” approach versus a clinical professional.

Interacting with animals has been shown to help enhance quality of life, improving mental and physical symptoms like high blood pressure, pain, anxiety and depression/loneliness. By stimulating the brains production of the “feel good” hormone serotonin, it can have a calming effect in as little as fifteen minutes. It may also help with socialization skills for dementia patients who are having difficulty with language.

The role these volunteers and their animals play with patients is truly remarkable. Whether they help bring a quiet person out of their silence or provide a warm body as a comforting presence to reduce anxiety and stress, the stories and situations are all equally as astounding and heartwarming. “Just by their presence and unconditional acceptance, pets have a unique ability to connect with patients and elicit positive reactions not otherwise seen with human interaction,” explains Chris Novak, McLean Hospice Volunteer Coordinator.

While animal-assisted therapy has been a part of the Hospice program for the past twelve years and McLean’s Life Enrichment team consistently plans activities including family and community-owned pets, now is an especially critical time for pets to be beneficial to seniors. We are living in an unprecedented time; many are dealing with depression, loneliness and isolation as we all struggle through quarantine and social distancing practices. Animals are a substitute for human interaction when contact must be limited. They can provide companionship, listen without judgement, and create a sense of comfort in this distressing environment. The responsibility of being a pet owner for those who are able to take care of one, goes even further in creating purpose in their life, establishing a daily routine and even providing a reason to exercise.

Even when it is not possible to own a pet or have one visit, virtual or “window” visits with family pets can still help to bring a smile to everyone’s face!

For more information on Animal Assisted Therapy at McLean, call 860-658-3700.

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