Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dementia and animal-assisted therapy

Murphy is my 4-year-old chocolate Lab. He and I are a Delta Society Pet Partners team. We are part of a year-long project created to determine the benefits of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) for individuals with dementia living in the memory unit of an elder-care facility. The project is divided into 10-week segments, followed by a week off for debriefing, then another 10 weeks. The goal is to have measurable results at the end of 2010. The project was created by the recreation therapist on-site at the facility with input from members of my therapy dog team, Life's Journey.

Week 1. Six residents were selected to participate in the year-long project. Each had been identified by staff as liking dogs. A room within the memory unit was designated as our meeting room. Murphy and I arrived early and greeted each resident as he or she arrived. The hour included introductions, hands-on interaction with Murphy for each individual, and a photo session providing the opportunity for each resident to have a picture taken with Murphy. The end of the hour found Murphy making his way around the room saying goodbye to each resident.

Week 2. We started with Murphy escorting individuals from their rooms to our meeting room. Next everyone got individual one-on-one time to interact with Murphy. Lots of petting, hugging and an occasional Murphy kiss. The room felt charged with positive energy as we began the hour-long session. First, staff invented a game where one resident at a time picks a card with a one of Murphy's trained behaviors on it, like "down". Murphy and I stood in the middle of the room and one at a time a resident would rise, walk to us, and ask Murph to do what was on their card. It was great fun, my canine partner all smiles and happy to accommodate his elderly friends. Murphy's only confusion came when one of the residents walked to him and held the card in front of his face so he could read it ... Next, staff distributed 11x17 calendars they created using the pictures taken during Week 1. The calendar is for the month we are currently in and includes the individual's picture with Murphy, dates for AAT, the resident's name, and information about Murphy. Each resident got to "walk" Murphy to his or her room to hang the calendar. On these walks, Murphy wears two leashes: a short one attached to his buckle collar for the resident to hold and his standard four-foot leash (that I hold) attached to his Martingale calendar so I can direct my dog. Residents love this, talking with people along the way, showing off their four-legged friend. We ended with more flash cards and a question from one of the residents: "Does Murphy speak French?" He does not now but may well know a few French words by year's end.

Follow along throughout the year as we share the results of regular AAT visits in this population.

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