LONG-TERM CARE NEWS
Animal assisted therapy
in long-term care
By Steve Crawford emember visiting a farm or zoo as a child? Think of the sounds, smells, sights and feel of the experience – being fascinated at watching the animals and perhaps being lucky enough to get a nickel from your mom or dad to buy some pellets from the modified bubble gum machine to feed your furry friends. Whether you grew up on a farm or just enjoyed seeing the animals at your local petting zoo, most of us have some deep-rooted memories of that experience. Julie Casey, a social worker and animal-assisted therapy specialist, tapped into that memory by researching the fundamental reactions to animals in people with dementia in the hopes of better managing agitated behaviours. “Animals offer us a deeply rooted connection,” says Julie. “They awaken
in us some profound emotions, memories and social connectedness that transcend any limits imposed by mental challenges.” The study was conducted in partnership with King’s University College, renowned for the excellence of its academic program in social work, and McCormick Dementia Research, a newly founded division of the McCormick Care Group that is committed to engaging in research activity that enhances quality of life for people living with dementia. In her work, Julie has frequently seen generally unresponsive people reach out to connect with her animals. One 90-year-old lady, who rarely communicates and usually sits passively in her chair, began chatting away once she started cradling Delilah the visiting chicken. Another experience saw a generally catatonic man reach out to
feel the wool of Sweet Pea the sheep as she passed by. “While these are not outright miracles, I do tend to see a lot of cases where the animals generate some surprising reactions in otherwise unresponsive people,” says Julie. “Human-animal interaction can produce a range of positive outcomes,” says Dr. Rick Csiernik, project supervisor and professor at King’s University College. “On the biological level there is the release of oxytocin, which is a hormone that is associated with positive affect.” A total of 15 residents at McCormick Home, a long-term care home in London, Ontario, participated in the data-collection phase of the project. In addition to interacting with Delilah and Sweet Pea, participants had the opportunity to bond with Barley the bunny, Blossom the goat, and Daisy, Delilah’s counterpart.
Outcomes of the study included a decrease in verbally aggressive behaviour and depression, and less resistance to care. In addition, those who attended more sessions exhibited a significant decrease in exit-seeking behaviour than whose who attended fewer sessions. “While there were not significant improvements in all areas given the progressive nature of dementia, preserving function and quality of life can in and of itself be considered a success,” says Julie. “Overall, the study demonstrated that the farm animals did contribute to enhanced wellbeing and did not create any negative outcomes. Even minimal contact was found to produce some positive results in the participants.” While a major limitation of the study was the small sample size, the outcomes were sufficient to warrant a