As long ago as 1790, Quakers in England discovered the value of the age-old bond between humans and animals when they took friendly dogs to mental asylums and found they helped to quiet the chaos.
The Pet Therapy program started in the Lower Mainland around l970. A group, initiated by friends of the Vancouver SPCA, got together calling themselves Pets and Friends. Although many such animal/patient groups have been organized since then, Pets and Friends - volunteers and their pets - visit over 200 facilities.
According to residential home staff, patients who are regularly visited by pets are more receptive to medical treatment and nourishment.
“Everyone needs to touch, both physically and emotionally, and holding or patting a dog seems to fulfill both those needs,” says Kara O'Mara, recreation director and volunteer co-ordinator at St. Jude's Anglican Home in Vancouver.
Contrary to what the younger generation may think, seniors weren't always seniors. During their lives, they bonded with their babies, cherished their children and were lovingly held by their partners, then, one day, the touching stops. A great many seniors have no hands to hold or bodies to hug, so stroking or patting a dog provides that stimulation.
Usually, just the sight of a pet will bring smiles, and the proximity of something warm and alive fills a void, if only for a short time. It isn't cancer or heart troubles that bothers seniors the most “It's loneliness,” says one support staff.
Maria Tennison has worked in many seniors' homes in the Lower Mainland and can't praise the Pet Therapy programs enough. “I can't believe the change in the seniors when pets visit,” she says.
Maria says some patients lay prone in their beds, showing no interest in anything, but they suddenly come alive in response to a pet beside them. She says some of the incidents she's witnessed are nothing short of miraculous.
Volunteer visits usually last from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the pet and the senior. At St. Jude's, Brian Bartel and his Golden Retriever, Ruby, are paying their weekly visit to 92-year-old Dorothy McIsaac, who came to Canada as an English war bride in l945.
“I think [Ruby] lights up when she comes in to visit me,” says wheelchair-bound Dorothy in her tidy room where Ruby leans against her. “But I wouldn't have called her Ruby.”
When Brian isn't volunteering with Ruby, he works as a helicopter bush pilot in Northern B.C., so he has many fascinating stories to share as the residents pat Ruby's head. Brian and Ruby are members of the St. John's Ambulance Society.
“When I put Ruby's St. John's Ambulance scarf around her neck, she knows it is a visiting day and she can't wait to get going,” says Brian. “She enjoys the attention as much as the seniors!”
And what does Brian get out of volunteering his time?
“It makes me feel good!” he says.
Fifty-two-year-old Diane Booth, who visits seniors with her gentle Border Collie, Molly, every Sunday at Seniors Village in Surrey, has a personal reason for volunteering.
“I lost my beloved sister to Alzheimer's Disease,” says Diane. “They call that awful disease 'The Long Goodbye' because you lose a little more of your loved one as time passes.”
Her sister deteriorated for quite a few years, first in a hospital and, then, in a home. “Then one day, I took Molly to visit her and a miracle happened. All of a sudden, it was as though a window opened and I had my sister back. She was lucid, she knew who I was, and she made a fuss of Molly. It was unbelievable! It didn't last long, but it happened!”
Ever since her sister died, Diane and Molly have given their time to make a difference in the lives of confined seniors.
Molly and Ruby, like other visiting pets, must undergo a short training session to ensure they won't freak out if they get poked by a cane or have an ear tugged too hard. Most pass the test, but some don't.
No special breed of dog is better suited than others to visit - it all depends on individual temperament. Labs and retrievers are usually big and gentle, but not always. Some lap dogs lap up attention, while others are skittish around new people.
The benefits of Pet Therapy are well recognized and celebrated.
*Golden Girls* actress Betty White, 88, an Animal Rights activist, is writing her sixth book. In *Pet Love*, she writes, “All over the world major universities are researching the value of pets in our society. Pets have the power to heal - especially the elderly. Pets are one of nature's best sources of affection. They can take the human mind off loneliness, grief, pain and fear.”
Betty is one of many well-known people who recognize the positive impact animals have on humans. In his book, *Love, Miracles and Animal Healing*, Dr. Allen Schoen, DVM, writes, “Love for pets can literally save lives.”
St. Jude's own resident physician Dr. Keith Hatlelid agrees, “Unless they were allergic to animals, our residents would have had pets of some sort in their lives in the past. I feel that having pets in a [residence] would be a reminder of that and would offer a sense of comfort.”
The medicine of love - given and received in Pet Therapy - is just what the doctor ordered!
AUGUST 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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