A friendly dog or cat can be a magical addition to any family. Pets offer unconditional love, help fight depression, and give us a sense of purpose. Pets can be a “lifesaver” for families coping with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.
For the person with dementia, animals:
Offer affection and “unconditional love.” It’s amazing how a cat on the lap or a friendly dog evokes a smile and positive response.
Provide an opportunity for meaningful chores. This person can take charge of the daily walk or be responsible for grooming the pet (with some supervision). Having a daily “job” gives a sense of purpose and a sense of accomplishment when the chore is accomplished.
Introduce fun into your life. When your loved one watches the cat leap into the air to catch a feather, chase a ball or meow at a bird through the window it brings back the often lost sense of fun.
Provide sensory stimulation. As the Alzheimer’s disease advances, it will become more and more important for this person to get sensory stimulation. Having an animal in his or her lap to pet, or to be by his or her side provides comfort and may even reduce agitation and anxiety.
Support opportunities for socialization. Your loved one may enjoy talking about the pet, learning information about the breed or animal from books or the Internet and discussing the pet’s personality. Pets lead to a good opportunity for fun with young children as well, since children are often fascinated by the exploits of animals.
Offer an excuse to get outside. Persons with dementia and many other elders spend most of their time indoors. Walking the dog provides for an excuse to get outside. Being outside provides sensory stimulation (the smell of fresh flowers, the sound of lawns being mowed and the sight of flowers and trees). Being out of doors also provides us with natural vitamin D, something we all need.
While having a pet provides for many benefits, use common sense to assess whether your loved one is able to care for the pet. An option is to always get help; most in-home workers will do simple pet chores or walks. Also, a growing number of senior residential care programs allow a well behaved pet.
You may find a “lower maintenance” pet more appropriate like a fish aquarium or birds. They can also provide interest and fascination without quite as much work. If this is too much, see if a friendly neighbor or local pet therapy group is available to drop by with their animal to visit so that your loved one can have the best of both worlds—time with friendly and life-affirming animals without all the work!