Animal-Assisted Therapy Provides Wellbeing Benefits to Seniors

Each week a frisky Australian Shepherd pays a visit to University Living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For Rocketman, it’s a chance for attention. He dashes from room to room, greeting residents, grateful for their attention. He fetches toys, does tricks and, in return, receives attention and affection. But he’s not the only beneficiary of these weekly stop-ins. As happy as the residents of University Living make Rocketman feel, he has the same effect on his fans. In fact, his presence is therapeutic.

Activities director Maureen Pawlak has seen the effects of Rocketman’s weekly visits on the happiness and wellbeing of the residents. “Animals have the ability to bring out the best in people,” Pawlak said. “They relieve anxiety and make them feel comfortable. All they want in return is attention and affection.”

Animals aide in relaxation, bonding and socialization

Animal-assisted therapy is an integral part of University Living therapy programs, and research validates the observations that Pawlak has made among the elders at her community.

A 2006 study on animal-assisted therapy found that the presence of a dog can help reduce aggression and agitation and increase social behavior in seniors with dementia. The study found that the effects of animals are actually neurological. Interaction can lower blood pressure and increase neurochemicals associated with relaxation and bonding, helpful tools in ameliorating behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.

In addition to Rocketman’s visits, the residents at University Living are joined by Winslow, a Newfoundland that visits the community once a month. According to Pawlak, residents love cuddling up with the gentle giant. “We have a resident who is just a little on the quiet side, and it was often difficult for us to get him to participate in activities,” she said. “But when Winslow comes to visit, he is always there waiting for his turn to pet him and visit with him.”

Pawlak and University Living staff found that the visits from the dogs were so beneficial to residents that they decided to explore incorporating animals more into life at the community.

Exotic animals offer entertainment, engagement and education

Mark Rosenthal runs Animal Magic, a nonprofit dedicated to exotic wildlife conservation and life science education. Pawlak invited him to University Living as a way of expanding on the community’s interest in animals and animal-assisted therapy.

“He brought a variety of animals that most of us have never seen,” she said. “The residents just couldn’t get enough; they were fascinated.” From all over the University Living building, residents came out to see Rosenthal’s presentation. The event was educational, social and a whole lot of fun.

Whether it’s visits from friendly pups or introductions to feathered or scaled friends, University Living residents are able to make bonds that are bringing them out of their shells and lifting their spirits.

University Living has animal-assisted therapy activities the first and third Saturdays of each month from 10:00 to 11:00 am. For more on University Living’s comprehensive approach to wellbeing, visit ProvisionLiving.com.

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