Animal-human bond especially strong with frail elderly, kids

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Gil Gooch snuggles Maddie at the Utah State Veterans Nursing Home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, August 15, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As Noralyn Snow and her pal Maddie walk down the hall of the Veterans Nursing Home, where Snow is the administrator, they stop to chat with a pair of elderly veterans basking in the sun reflecting off the interior courtyard window.

The two residents beam at Maddie and one pats her head. "I love you," the elderly woman coos.

"That's her job, to be loved, and she's darned good at it," says Snow, scooping the diaper-clad baby red kangaroo into her arms. Maddie responds by kissing Snow, her surrogate mom.

The kangaroo, with her deer face, snaky tail, raccoon-like hands and jackrabbit feet, is not the only animal who prowls the halls of the nursing home, visiting residents and delighting relatives who visit. A pair of cats get their fair share of affection and Lucy the dog is a hit when she stops in the Alzheimer's unit. But Maddie is certainly the most unusual.

She provides a "wow" factor Snow said draws families and makes the place special, not a bleak health-care facility for those who live here, sometimes reluctantly.

"Studies say people die of loneliness and lack of spontaneity," said Snow, who brings Maddie in with her most weekdays. "She helps that. And animals make it so kids are not so afraid to come see grandpa in the nursing home."

Animal magnetism

Animals and their humans have been comforting and loving each other for ages, the bond nearly magical, said experts who use that connection to help frail or disadvantaged populations. Wags for Hope in Frederick, Md., boosts literacy by having children read to dogs. Washington-based Pet Partners has registered more than 11,000 people and their pets in 50 states and 13 countries to provide therapy in hospitals, hospice, special education programs, nursing homes and elsewhere.

Among the elderly, some programs welcome both trained therapy animals and friendly pets, so cats, dogs, birds and fish may be found in nursing homes. There's a difference between animal-assisted and animal-therapy activities and just having pets hang out — and some controversy we'll get to later — but they have some things in common, too.

"People open up," said Phil Arkow, an instructor specializing in animal-assisted therapy for Harcum College and Camden County College. The Stratford, N.J., man said "animals have a unique ability to break through the barriers that people put up... You know that when you've seen somebody who hasn't spoken in years suddenly talk to a pet. People have a need to nurture, a need to express compassion, a need to connect with the natural world. Under the right circumstances, animals can do that amazingly well."

If you wonder where the animal is in a facility, he said, follow the sound to where people are talking. "It's like the scene in the Wizard of Oz, where everything changes to color."

The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interactions presented a study showing that women in nursing homes would rather play with a rabbit for an hour than have time to do whatever they want. A study in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found pet ownership by the elderly increases activity and ability to handle stress and lowers blood pressure.

Therapy programs often use animals in work with children with disabilities. "An animal doesn't see a disability. It doesn't see that you're having a bad day or coming out of a stressful therapy treatment. It just wants someone to love and pet it. I once had a man in hospice tell me, 'Everyone visiting me looks at me like I'm dying. Your dog looks at me like I'm living.'"

The listener

People who are despondent or who have been victimized often tell their stories first to an animal, said Linda Porter-Wenzlaff, licensed counselor and professor of nursing at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere