Dementia Service Dogs ~ Guest Post by Jessica Hegg
Small Dogs a Playing a Pivotal Role in Helping Patients with Alzheimer’s.
Coping with Alzheimer’s for both patient and family can be extremely difficult and debilitating.
The progressive disease which is essentially general degeneration of the brain and its ability to form and store memories can lead to dementia and further cognitive decline that prevents someone with it from being able to execute even the simplest task.
Over 5 million people in the United States are estimated to have Alzheimer’s with that number expected to grow increasingly as the whole of the Boomer generation will have aged into the 65+ bracket by 2029.
There are ways to help prevent and combat Alzheimer’s including diet, exercise, and medical intervention - but what about dogs?
Canines make amazing therapy companions and assistive service animals for people with vision and hearing impairment, as well as seizure disorders and autism.
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Can dogs be beneficial members of a family with an adult who has Alzheimer’s? Absolutely. Here’s how:
An important piece to the puzzle of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is maintaining a fixed and ready schedule for loved one and caregiver(s) to follow.
From waking, taking medicine, eating, and going to bed, a structured agenda for the day provides stability to the life of someone experiencing memory loss, and helps them commit more actions to procedural (muscle) memory.
How does a dog come into play?
Well canines are also creatures of habit, and a regular schedule for going on walks, eating, and exercising plays right into their natural instincts.
A docile, obedient and loving canine companion could offer helpful reminders to someone with Alzheimer’s, help them feel more in control of managing their own schedule, and prevent ‘sundowning.’ Sundowner’s disease symptoms might include outbursts, anger, memory loss and confusion in the evening hours by a senior with Alzheimer’s because their natural sleep/wake cycle has been altered by brain damage.
A dog which they know to walk and feed every evening may help serve as a time peg in a schedule that combats sundowning.
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And so do humans! Older adults with Alzheimer’s especially benefit from regular physical fitness because it helps prevent other ailments like heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity which can complicate their existing condition.
Exercise in itself also boosts blood flow to the muscles and brain, and provides cognitive stimulation to help combat general decline.
Just like humans, dogs should get at least 30 minutes of low-impact exercise daily whether it’s going on walks, hiking, swimming, you name it.
Canine breeds like Shih Tzus and Pugs are perfect for seniors - their small, docile lower-energy nature pairs well with an older adult looking for an easy dog to walk and also relax with.
In addition to the general security even small dogs like Boston Terriers and Maltese’s can provide (alerting owners to alarms, phone rings, doorbells, etc by barking), “Dementia Service Dogs” are providing medical service that is changing the way adults with Alzheimer’s live.
Specially trained and GPS-tracked Dementia Dogs both prevent a person with Alzheimer’s from leaving their house unaccompanied, as well as help their owners get back to the safety of their own home with a simple command.
They can also help wake their owners up and remind them of where their belongings are (like their clothes for the day or their medicine).
The onset of Alzheimer’s is often accompanied by myriad feelings of frustration, confusion, agitation and anxiety.
Being unable to recall a name or getting outside and forgetting what you were doing can be stark, and scary realizations. Fighting those emotions with positive feelings of confidence and self-reliance can be supported in part by caring for a dog.
A pet which returns unconditional love and which needs the care of an owner can help drive a purposeful life for someone battling Alzheimer’s.
It is important to remember that pets can be safety hazards for the elderly especially because of their ability to trip or unbalance their owner.
If owning a dog isn’t an option for you or your loved one with Alzheimer’s, fostering a pet, volunteering at an animal shelter, or suggesting a resident dog join a long-term care facility may be more viable options.