My mother is 82 years old and lives in her own home. She has some short-term memory loss, which is slowly progressing. Since my father died almost a year ago, my mom seems so isolated and sad at times, and I am wondering if getting a dog would help her. My parents used to always have dogs. Is there such a service for those who experience memory challenges? What are the pros and cons? — F.J., Orinda
Dear F.J.: What a great idea! Companionship, comfort, touch and unconditional love! Too good to be true?
Service dogs have long been used to help humans with disabilities such as blindness, deafness and post-traumatic stress disorder. Florence Nightingale recognized how well animals provided social support for institutionalized mentally ill patients. And the American Red Cross deployed dogs to military and convalescent hospitals after World War II. A doggie best friend can have a big impact on the quality of our lives, and this is especially true for older adults.
Research shows that older adult pet owners report slower deterioration in their ability to perform activities of daily living when compared to non-pet owners. Older adult pet owners also report that their pets, particularly dogs, help them stay active (they are more likely to achieve the recommended amount of walking for their age group) while also providing structure and sense of purpose to their days.
Pet owners visit doctors less often and have less pharmaceutical expenditures, and generally report better well-being than non-pet owners. There also is strong evidence that companion animals enhance self-esteem, improve life satisfaction, help with positive mood and lower levels of loneliness.
Dogs and other animals may be an integral part of creating a sense of community and belonging. They usually facilitate the use of public spaces such as parks, and often act as enablers of social interaction and civic engagement. An individual who walks with a dog is more likely to be engaged in a conversation by other people along the way.
Additionally, a study of older people whose spouse died recently showed that a strong attachment to their pet mitigated depression. This could be helpful in your mom’s case.
While considering whether or not to bring a pet into the home, there are also some other issues to consider. Tripping over a pet’s bedding, bowl or toys (or the pet itself) increases the risk of falling, for example.
A less rambunctious, well-trained animal, such as a therapy or guide dog is a good option. If your mom has in-home care providers, they can help take care of the dog as well as keep an eye out for fall risks.
We are seeing more information and research emerging on the benefits of service or therapy dogs for older adults with cognitive impairment and dementia. An Israeli social worker and her dog trainer partner were the first to come up with the concept of guide dogs for those suffering from degenerative brain disease. And since 2012, the Dementia Dog Project in Scotland has been providing service dogs for this population of older adults.
These service dogs can be trained to assist with a variety of daily tasks, such as: reminding a person when to take their medications, alerting them that they’ve left their stove on, helping them identify their car in a crowded parking lot or guiding them home if they get lost on a walk. These animals are also conditioned to hone in on their owner’s scent, enabling them to track a wanderer for miles.
Dog-assisted therapy for older adults with dementia in residential programs also shows improved quality of life. Common observed effects are decreases in agitation and aggressive behaviors, increases in social contact, and more alertness and verbalization. Research shows that the effects of quiet company between humans and pet dogs lowers the person’s blood pressure and increases the level of the neurochemical linked to relaxation and bonding. These effects can translate into potential treatment of the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.
As with many things, there are rewards and risks of owning a pet later in life. If this task is undertaken with much thought, research, and skill, the rewards will outweigh the risks and can provide much companionship. A dog could certainly enhance your mom’s independence and quality of life.
Here are some local and national programs that can help provide canine companions.
Alliance of Therapy Dogs: A national registry with more than 14,000 members across North America. Assists in certifying potential therapy dogs. (877) 843-7364
Assistance Dogs International: A coalition of nonprofit assistance dog organizations that can help people find a dog to match their needs. No phone
Dog Wish: Trains dogs as companions to people with neurological disabilities. (760) 662-3767
PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support): Provides companion animal services to low-income San Franciscans. (415) 979-9550
Pets for the Elderly: Assists seniors with adoption fees when they are seeking a companion pet. (480) 625-4679
Power Pets: Raises, trains and places assistance dogs with people with disabilities. (480) 970-1322