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Animals Put the "Home" Back Into Nursing Homes

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Pets and companion animals in nursing homes bring great benefits to elderly residents. If you have occasion to visit a nursing home, don't be surprised if, in addition to its residents and healthcare providers, you also see the occasional dog, cat, bird, or maybe even kangaroo.

Unfortunately, there tends to be little "home'' in nursing homes. Nursing home life is all too often characterized by loneliness and boredom. Residents may be withdrawn and suffer from depression, which may have as much or more to do with their isolation from normal life as from the infirmities of age.

But in recent years, those who work in nursing homes or extended care facilities have found that giving nursing home residents an opportunity to interact with animals yields significant improvement in their quality of life and general sense of well-being.

A developing trend

A recent article in USA Today reported on the use of animal companions - 7 dogs, 6 cats, 40 birds, and - yes, a baby kangaroo named Marlee - at the Silverado Senior Living Aspen Park Community in Salt Lake City, home to 100 residents.

Stephen F. Winner, a co-founder of Silverado, explained in a telephone interview with WebVet that all Silverado facilities have had a "must-have-animals policy'' since the company began operations 11 years ago. They maintain a "mandatory minimum ratio'' of one dog and one cat for every 10 residents, a ratio that is actually exceeded by most of the facilities. Winner describes the facilities as a "full menagerie'' that includes birds and the occasional exotic animal visitor, as well.

Silverado is not alone in its use of pets to improve the quality of life for nursing home residents. In what appears to be a trend, nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the country have instituted programs to bring the benefits of animal companionship to their residents.

A variety of programs

Some programs involve "Animal Assisted Activities'' - informal programs that involve either one or more residential pet(s) who become part of the residents' everyday lives, or periodic pet visitations. In the latter case, nursing homes often turn to animal shelters or volunteers to bring animals to visit their residents on a regular basis. Many of these volunteers are trained as Pet Partners(R) by the Delta Society(R) ( HYPERLINK "http://www.deltasociety.org/index.htm" deltasociety.org ), an organization devoted to training people to use service and therapy animals.

"We have trained over 10,000 Pet Partners(R) worldwide,'' said JoAnn Turnbull, director of marketing for Delta. "The majority have been trained to work with dogs, but we have many cat Pet Partners(R) as well.''

Clear benefits

Studies have shown that interaction with animals can lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and relieve depression. According to Winner, the presence of animals "infuses our environments with life'' and brings demonstrable medical benefits, including reduced depression and lower blood pressure. But perhaps just as important is the boost to self-esteem that assisting in the care of an animal can bring.

And in case you were wondering about Marlee, the baby kangaroo, when she's no longer a baby, she'll go back to the breeder. A full-grown kangaroo might be a bit too much companionship!

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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