Animal Assisted Therapy in aged care

What is animal therapy?

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), also known as animal therapy or pet therapy, involves tapping into the Human-Animal Bond (HAB) and spending time with animals in order to improve our overall health. This could be to target a specific emotional issue, a chronic cognitive condition, or simply to improve our overall mental wellbeing.

Whilst playing with animals might seem more of a recreational activity than a therapeutic program, in fact, animal therapy can provide serious benefits to participants’ mental and physical wellbeing, such as lowering stress levels, improving communication, and enhancing motor skills.

Because of this, animal therapy has been considered a key addition to elderly care programs, and therefore is offered across a wide range of aged care settings, including our Japara homes. We arrange regular visits from local animal owners to our homes as well as external wildlife experiences for our residents, each tailored to help them achieve their own personal development goals.

What are the benefits of animal therapy?

Interacting with animals and domestic pets offers a wealth of advantages to both our physical and mental wellbeing. Here are some of the main benefits of animal assisted therapy, and how it can help residents living in aged care.

Physical benefits

Sensory stress relief: Studies have shown that stroking an animal, such as a dog or cat, is an effective way of lowering blood pressure and anxiety levels by releasing the hormone oxytocin into the body. This in turn, reduces the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease which is more prevalent amongst the older generation.

Animal assisted therapy at Japara South Yarra care home: residents stroke huskies and rabbit

Accessibility: Pet therapy is one of the only universally accessible forms of therapy. Animals do not require verbal communication, meaning residents of all languages and verbal abilities can benefit from stroking and interacting with animals, such as those living with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Encourage exercise: Regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for people of all ages, but for those in later life, it’s crucial to maintain overall immune function and mobility. Having a pet or animal to play with and tend to can encourage older people to be more active, and walks in the park are often far more enjoyable with a four-legged companion spurring you on. That’s why many of our Japara nurses and staff bring their own pets into the homes with them from time to time to spend the day with residents. This not only brings added excitement to morning walks, but it also encourages communication.

Fluffy puppy, Billie, joins the residents at Japara Narracan Gardens every Tuesday and Thursday for their afternoon walk.
Fluffy puppy, Billie, joins the residents at Japara Narracan Gardens every Tuesday and Thursday for their afternoon walk.

“Resident who have owned pets in the past take immense pleasure from having pets in the home for the day, following them round and sitting in their rooms with them just as they would have done in their family homes years ago,” says Kirsten Rigney, Customer Engagement Lead at Japara. “On the other hand, our non-verbal residents who often struggle with human interaction find great comfort and relaxation in simply being able to sit, stroke, and cuddle animal visitors.”

Improved motor skills: Stroking, cuddling, or playing with a pet or animal can help those who have lost mobility due to a stroke or neurological disease, like dementia, to regain motor skills. This in turn has a profound effect on the individual’s independence.

Memory skills: It’s not just domestic pets that visit our Japara residents; we’ve also welcomed a host of exotic animals over the years. Recently, Chuckles the alpaca visited our Narracan Gardens home in Victoria.

Residents at Naraccan Garden loved their pet therapy session with Chuckles the alpaca, playing with his fur and cuddling him.

Many of the resident at Narracan Gardens were farmers in their younger years, and Chuckles encouraged them to reminisce about their experiences and recount stories from the past. On the other hand, there were also residents who had never seen an alpaca before, so meeting Chuckles was a great source of entertainment for them.

Psychological benefits

Companionship: Unfortunately, loneliness is a reality for many of our older generation. It’s a time in our lives at which we may have lost many of those closest to us, and some may struggle to form new friendships, lacking the confidence to initiate conversations or reach out for help. Unlike humans, animals lack judgement, and can therefore provide affection and loyalty without the need for much reciprocation. What’s more, animals can be an excellent catalyst for conversation between residents who may not otherwise have the courage to socialise.

Sense of worth: Developing a bond with an animal and watching them respond well to interactions can help promote self-worth amongst elderly people who may feel like they lack the independence they once had.

Mental wellbeing: Studies have shown that spending time around pets and animals can alleviate symptoms of depression and improve a person’s overall psychological state.

Lily the therapy dog is a regular visitor at our Sandhill care home in Tasmania. She brightens everyone’s day with her lively and friendly nature, so we wanted to give something back in return. Here she is with her owner, Denise, receiving a well-deserved Volunteer of the Year Award from Home Manager, Peter Francis.

Lily the therapy dog receiving a gift for her volunteer work at Japara Sandhill aged care home

“Many of our residents have had pets in the past and miss their company when it comes to moving away from the family home,” says Peter. “As soon as animals enter the room, our residents’ faces visibly light up, and that positive energy has a lasting effect for the rest of the day, making them more likely to engage in other activities and therefore have a more productive and meaningful lifestyle.”

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