By Maureen Rulison
Caregiver Support and Resources, LLC
There’s just something about owning an animal. It’s a responsibility, but pets bring so much life, light and love to environments that need it most. Animal-assisted care can be a great source of comfort and support for elders in good health and end-of-life patients alike.
A well-trained service animal can serve as watchful eyes, a helpful assistant, calming presence and even a lifesaver. They’re becoming increasingly recognized as a valuable addition to the aging process and even dying with dignity.
Studies have shown that animals can help reduce anxiety, depression and isolation in our beloved elders, while also providing a sense of purpose and connection to the world.
Animal-Assisted Care Can Help Loved Ones From Aging Gracefully Through End of Life
You may not think of a therapy pet being very helpful in life’s end stages. Your mental picture of someone dying – perhaps surrounded by family after a lengthy battle with cancer – probably doesn’t include a dog or cat.
That’s because you’re only thinking of end-of-life care as those final days. (Although, I’ve witnessed many times a dying individual feeling quite comforted by stroking the soft ear of a beloved pet.) But end-of-life isn’t just the “active” dying process. The weeks and months leading up to the end can actually be quite joyous and purposeful alongside a furry friend.
Animal-assisted therapy involves the use of specially trained animals, typically dogs or cats, to provide comfort, support and companionship to individuals approaching the end in various health care settings. They’re trained to respond to cues from their handlers and are carefully selected for their friendly and gentle temperaments. They can assist patients in hospice care facilities, hospitals or even in their own homes.
1. Reduced Anxiety & Depression
Animals have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in our aging loved ones, helping them feel more relaxed and at ease. This can be particularly beneficial for hospice patients who are experiencing pain, discomfort and emotional unrest. Studies have shown that the presence of an animal alone releases stress-reducing hormones in the brain.
A great therapy pet, where permitted, can make assisted living feel more like home.
2. Improved Mood & Emotional Well-Being
Spending time with animals goes a step further to even improve mood and other feelings of well-being. Aging in good health or bad is emotionally straining. It’s common to feel we aren’t “ready to go,” which can come with emotions ranging from deep sorrow to anger. Therapy pets help our aging loved ones feel generally more upbeat and engaged with the world around them.
3. Emergency Assistance
Service animals also play a vital role in emergency situations. In a medical emergency, a service animal can alert medical professionals or even call for help. You might even consider them a first responder of sorts. They can provide physical assistance to their owner, such as pressing the LifeAlert button, guiding them to safety or helping to navigate obstacles.
Additionally, therapy pets can provide comfort during highly stressful situations like natural disasters or traumatic events.
4. Enhanced Sense of Purpose
Caring for an animal can add meaning to life, helping our elders and even hospice patients to feel more connected. While your loved one is still mobile and aware, they may find purpose in minor chores like feeding and walking. Animal-assisted care can be particularly important for loved ones who feel they’ve lost their sense of purpose or identity.
5. Increased Socialization
Animals can be a catalyst for social interaction for our aging loved ones. Aging loved ones can feel lonely and isolated, even with family and friends coming around frequently. But taking a dog for a walk or sitting out in the sun petting a cat can improve mood enough to stir the desire to socialize with friends, neighbors and passersby.
6. Comfort & Companionship
A therapy pet doesn’t need to be a highly trained former police or military service animal to be effective. Sometimes their presence alone is a job well done. As with the reasons mentioned above, helping your loved one feel well is the ultimate goal – especially approaching end of life.
Perhaps most importantly, animals can provide companionship to individuals along the aging journey – and all its ups, downs, twists and turns. Animal-assisted therapy is a source of unconditional love and support, providing elders with an ever-present sense of warmth and comfort.
7. Support for Care Partners
Animal-assisted therapy can also benefit family members and close friends who form your loved one’s care-partner team. It can help to reduce caregiver stress and burnout, and can provide a sense of connection and support to care partners struggling to cope with the challenges of elder care and the end-of-life transition.
Animal-Assisted Care: A Great Option for Everyone’s Health & Well-Being
If you are interested in incorporating animal-assisted therapy into your loved one’s end-of-life care, let’s make sure that’s an important element of their well-rounded life-care plan. Speak with your loved one’s health care provider or hospice care team. They can provide guidance and resources to help find a qualified animal therapy provider in your area. Or perhaps there’s already a longtime family pet that needs to be present, wherever your loved one resides.
With the help of a therapy animal, you can provide your loved one with the comfort, support, and companionship they need during this difficult time. As a professional life-care planner and a Board-certified Patient Advocate, I assist individuals and their care-partner teams every day. Caregiver Support and Resources, LLC can help you with this and other processes from beginning to end.