Hot Trend in Senior Care: Animal-Assisted Therapy

Hot Trend in Senior Care: Animal-Assisted Therapy

Create additional opportunities for compassion and support for vulnerable, elderly populations: Animal-assisted therapy can help transform therapy sessions and get participants more eager to share and engage. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) considers the animal as a “behavioral facilitator” that can trigger positive behavioral and health modifications in patients. In the area of mental health, it is believed that animal-assisted therapy can improve concentration, attention and self-esteem, reduce loneliness and anxiety, develop recreation abilities and improve verbal interaction.  Application includes animal adoption by the patient or use of a trained animal during structured activities. Lonely and challenged seniors are only one of the many groups that are reaping purported benefits of animal-assisted therapy seen in therapy sessions and senior centers. Understand how behavioral therapists, case managers and mental health professionals can use animal-assisted therapy with senior populations.

Pets as Therapy at a Geriatric Behavioral Services Facility

Many seniors benefit from group therapy to combat depression and anxiety. Aging populations now enjoy tail-wagging and physical touch with the use of an animal companion during therapy sessions at the Gibson City Hospital. Daisy, a spaniel/border collie mix, accompanies Vicki Angstmann, group therapy leader, four days a week at each of the sessions.

The intensive outpatient therapy program began incorporating animal-assisted therapy as of June 4th. Participants in the program look for ways to cope with depression, anxiety and other conditions. Daisy is a certified therapy dog tasked with providing comfort to individuals. Since June, participants have shown great interest in Daisy and are eager to engage with her. Angstmann said:

“They are very interested in what she does. Everyone wants to pet her. And occasionally, somebody is interacting with her and talking to the dog during the sessions, much like how you might talk to your own pet.”

Daisy has a keen awareness of the feelings of individuals in the group and can show a level of compassion and sympathetic touch when needed. As dogs have long been human companions and have proved sensitive to the needs of their owners, the example that Angstmann shared comes at little surprise but as a helpful support during a therapy session. She stated:

“One example is I had a patient who was crying, and (Daisy) went directly to that patient and put her paw on them. And she was able to provide comfort in a way that other group members and I can’t do. And that’s not the only experience. There’s been other times where patients have shared something that’s been very difficult that’s made them very anxious, and Daisy will go right to them. …It’s just cool to think that, ‘I didn’t do that—that’s something that she’s just able to pick up on herself.’”

Angstmann shared the requirements needed for an animal such as Daisy to become a therapy dog. In addition to basic obedience training, it is strongly suggested that a prospective therapy animal also have a Canine Good Citizenship Title provided by the American Kennel Club (AKC). Dogs must be able to heed commands and perform well when in the presence of other animals. Angstmann believes that animal-assisted therapy shows positive results.

Animals Helping Seniors Thrive

The use of animals to support the mental and emotional needs of seniors is also seen in senior centers such as Thousand Oaks in California, as reported by NBC4 News. Animals are known to provide considerable companionship to seniors; those like retired nurse, Mary Jo Miller, and retired school teacher, Mary Lou Heckel, enjoy canine companionship at their respective assisted living centers. Providing homes for their pets keeps seniors active and creates necessary bonds to support the emotional needs of pet owners.

As reported in The Health Benefits of Companion Animals, there are a number of interesting findings when animals are used to facilitate social interactions in nursing homes during animal-assisted therapy visits. It was seen that:

  • Elderly schizophrenic participants showed increased levels of mobility, self-care and interpersonal contact.
  • The level of loneliness in residents was reduced with the use of animal-assisted therapy.
  • Alzheimer’s patients showed fewer behavioral problems during a four-week study.
  • Alzheimer’s patients appeared to have improved social interactions and express an increased state of calmness with golden retriever visits.

Canines are not the only animals used to treat older populations in residential living communities. Other animals, such as fish, have been used in nursing homes to improve health outcomes of Alzheimer’s patients. As for elderly dog owners, data shows that they may have fewer doctor visits annually when compared with non-owners. Elderly individuals living alone must be able to carry out and afford the care of a companion pet if they are thinking about animal adoption. Nursing homes and assisted-living communities may see positive outcomes and improved social engagement not only in residents, but in the attitudes of staff as well when they embrace animal companionship or animal-assisted therapy as part of their program.

Improve Mental Health Outcomes with AAT

These findings and current applications of animal-assisted therapy at the Gibson City Hospital and animal companionship in senior centers in California provide significant support to consider the use of animal-human relationships and interactions to improve the mental and emotional well-being of aging populations. Mental health professionals, case managers, and behavioral therapists may want to develop a resource list of animal trainers, veterinarians, food banks and groomers to assist aging patients that may be able to benefit from the companionship and support the needs of an adopted pet. It is also worth investigating current AAT programs in the area or learning more to advocate for such programs for elderly populations.


Lisa DiFalco is a leading writer for wellness and education. She has helped manage cases directly at halfway houses before extensive careers in education and wellness. She is passionate about vital issues and supports community improvement efforts.

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