Nursing homes were one of the first institutions to welcome therapy dogs and allow them to interact with patients. They were originally welcomed because of the instant empathetic connection they were able to make with most patients and continue to be welcomed in part because of the increase in patient communication when the animals are brought in.
Oftentimes, people do not realize how lonely they are until they are suddenly enjoying the company of another person – or pet. For many nursing home residents, the day to day routine can become monotonous and can lead to greater instances of depression and increased awareness of pain. For many years, the only proof that therapy pets were improving patient outlooks and decreasing their need for pain medications was anecdotal. Over the past decade, however, several scientific studies have indicated there is a measurable improvement in patient disposition, stress levels, and perceived loneliness before and after a therapy dog visit.
One of the wonderful things about therapy dogs is their unquestioning love and acceptance of those around them. Patients who may have an unusual physical appearance due to age or illness are greeted with the same loving affection and unflinching loyalty as are the doctors, nurses, and staff. Because of this many of the residents who are self-conscious and apprehensive around other visitors are more willing to be drawn out of their shell when a pup arrives. This can lead to interaction with the dog handler as well as other staff and patients who are present when the animal visits.
Therapy dogs have another important role to play in nursing home communities, that of coworker. The staff members of the nursing homes are able to see measurable improvements in the overall well-being of their patients which offers a boost to staff morale. It is important that the staff take an active role in getting to know the therapy dogs so they can continue the discussion with the patients when the dog is absent. This allows for the extension of some of the benefits between visits.
The evidence supporting the use of therapy dogs in a variety of medical settings is clear; the dogs improve overall patient experiences. Allowing properly trained dogs, or well behaved pets, to interact with patients who are open to the visit can be quite beneficial. The only question is, why aren’t all nursing homes utilizing the services of a therapy dog?
What has your experience been with therapy dogs in the nursing home? Do you see a positive impact in the residents after a visit from a therapy dog?