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Animal-human bond especially strong with frail elderly, kids

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 6:09 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.

"What we know from research is that the more vulnerable somebody is — lonely, isolated, physically disabled, mentally challenged or abused — the more impact animal engagement has," Porter-Wenzlaff said.

She said research shows even looking at a picture of an animal that pleases you decreases blood pressure, heart rate and skin conductivity. "It's a calming, settling physiological experience."

She uses horses and dogs to work with abused children and adults with various challenges. "It's not for everyone, but it is powerful when it does work."

How therapy animals interact depends. In hospice, they may spend time quietly with residents. At a nursing home, residents may watch it perform a few tricks. Regardless, she said that those who are visited are more open and engaged in terms of meeting therapeutic goals for a couple of hours after the visit.

"Animals don't live in the past or the future, so they also allow us to engage with them in the moment. People with cognitive problems or who are depressed really are kind of turned off to the environment around them and it's hard to get them to stay engaged" in their treatment, said Porter-Wenzlaff. The animals can change that.

Animals encourage empathy and help with nurturing skills, said Pamela Barlow, manager of animal-assisted therapy programs for the ASPCA. Troubled adolescents who don't necessarily know how to care for another living thing, who haven't had the best care themselves, find animals provide entertainment and escape, she said. Stroke victims find mental stimulation. Animals can prompt recovering patients to exercise.

There are different schools of thought when it comes to therapy animals vs. resident animals, said Barlow. Some frown on it. Animals who live full time in a facility "don't have any sort of escape from interactions." She said they provide fewer benefits than animals trained to come in with a registered handler for a short session. Often, pets are not used to walkers and other equipment. They may not be temperamentally suited to the setting. Registered therapy animals have been checked for health and temperament — and so has their handler. Adult animals are used for therapy because they are more predictable, their personalities and quirks more clear.

And some exotic animals, she added, may pose a health risk to those who are immune compromised. Or their behavior may be unpredictable.

Maddie in motion

When Snow was young, her parents were often gone. She thinks they let her have an odd array of creatures, including a skunk and a squirrel, to entertain her. Helping raise a baby kangaroo seemed perfectly natural to her.

When she went to work at a different rehab center and nursing home 25 years ago, the residents enjoyed the company of cats and dogs, birds and fish and baby goats that wore diapers held on by suspenders.

Twelve years ago, she asked a man who raised kangaroos if she could borrow a baby for the nursing home where she worked. She's had nine over the years, the last six red kangaroos like Maddie.

Maddie is part of a serial undertaking, because while joeys are loving and gentle, once they are teens and hormones kick in, they become aggressive. Besides that, an adult will grow to five feet or taller and can spring six feet and reach speeds up to 40 mph. Soon Maddie will go back to the man who provided her and eventually live in a zoo or exotic reserve.

Maddie doesn't live at the nursing home, but goes in with Snow, who also takes her to visit school kids and special education programs, among others. Often, she lazes in the sunny courtyard or accompanies Snow on her rounds. When she's tired, she dozes in Snow's office.

Recently, children from First Friends Day Care stopped by to feed Maddie a bottle, a banana and a graham cracker and to cuddle her while they visited with some of the elderly veterans at the home. This kangaroo is part charmer, part bridge between generations. And soft as a kitten to the touch.

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