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Practical Caregiving

Pets Can Become a Caregiver's Assistant

By Jean Donahue

While I was taking care of Mom and Dad, I had a cat that my kids left me when they moved away from home. That cat turned out to be a big help with my parents.

The first 2-1/2 years, we traveled in a 32-foot travel trailer I pulled with a Suburban. We lived in Vancouver Island in the summer and Arizona and Texas in the winter.

While we were traveling to our destination, Mom would sit in the back seat with Hobbes and take care of him. She talked to him, told him everything would be all right when he meowed, and asked him how he liked the trip. When it was time to go inside the trailer, she made sure he was taken in first.

Dad always said he didn't like cats, but he made sure I had a cat when I was younger. He enjoyed watching Hobbes and made sure Hobbes had everything he needed. One time Dad dropped a cracker on the floor. Hobbes ran over and smelled it, then licked it, then ate it. Of course, Dad gave him another one. A couple days later Dad was opening a package of crackers when Hobbes heard the rattling and ran over. Dad laughed and gave him another cracker. After that Dad made sure I had a dish of crumbled crackers sitting out for Hobbes.

I had read how much the elderly like it when someone brings animals to their nursing home, but I didn't realize how much it meant to them until I took care of Mom and Dad. You see, Hobbes was very much my caregiving assistant with Mom and Dad.

The elderly face retirement, loss of friends and/or their spouse, serious illness, moving from their home of many years to a smaller place or a nursing home, and the inability to continue living their own lives the way they want. They face life coming to an end as well as loneliness and insecurity. A pet can be a friend that helps the elderly through the major upheavals in their life. Pets and people respond to each other with warmth, affection and unconditional love.

The right animal wants love and attention from their owner, even in a nursing home, and the owner completes the circle by responding with love and attention. The elderly person gives the pet love and attention, then the animal responds to that love by wagging its tail, purring, or some other appropriate response. Some elderly in nursing homes find long-lost happiness when they start interacting with a pet.

The presence of pets has been responsible for helping people heal faster, lower blood pressure, decrease pain episodes, bring smiles and encouragement, increase interaction with other people, enhance self-awareness and reality orientation, decrease anger and stress, provide topics for conversation, spark memories to talk about as well as fill the need to touch something that is alive in a loving manner. The lives of the elderly are enriched and improved when they routinely spend time with a pet.

In short, this becomes pet therapy.

The practice of taking pets on visits to the elderly started 20 to 30 years ago. At first, just a few people took their pets to a nursing home, but it has evolved into a more sophisticated program. Some nursing homes and other living facilities have pets living there, but most make it possible for pets to visit residents. There is even a business trade for providing pets to homes. Residents are encouraged to hold the animals, but those who don't want to be in contact with an animal are not forced to participate.

The health of pets that live with or visit the elderly need to be screened very carefully, and a veterinarian should be involved. The vet should perform regular health screenings and keep a close eye on the pet for any changes that could signal a problem. People who bring in the animals should be trained to help the elderly interact with a pet.

If you can, make it possible for your loved one to have contact with a loving pet. The pet need not be a cat or dog. It can be a rabbit, bird, fish, lizard or any other non-threatening animal they like. It will enrich their life, and yours as well.