Nov 1, 2016

The Role of Pets in Dementia Care

Does the increased reliance on visual rather than verbal cues explain why dementia patients react more positively to pets and toy pets; and, engage in higher level communications.

I think it is well known that persons living with dementia often react well to pets. So I often wondered about this relationship.

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The Role of Pets in Dementia Care | Alzheimer's Reading Room
When I read the research presented below from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) it caught my attention. The study was designed to answer this question.
How closely does the relationship between people and their non-human companions mirror the parent-child relationship?
The research helps answer the question as it relates to not only to dementia patients; but also to humans in general.

Note from Bob DeMarco. While caring for my mother I often read research like this and then extrapolated out the information to see if it might benefit my mother who lived with Alzheimer's disease.

How to Get Answers To Your Questions About Alzheimer's and Dementia

I noticed early on that my mother seemed to become more happy and more communicative while playing with stuffed animals that sang and danced. They key here - more communicative during and after. This lead not only to the purchase of more of these kinds of toys; and then, to the purchase of the repeat parrot we named Harvey.

I consider Harvey to be the greatest caregiver tool of them all -

The Best Alzheimer's Caregiver Tool of Them All

Thousands of caretivers have followed my lead came to the same conclusion.

Mass. General study suggests neurobiological basis of human-pet relationship

It has become common for people who have pets to refer to themselves as “pet parents,” but how closely does the relationship between people and their non-human companions mirror the parent-child relationship? 

A small study from a group of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers makes a contribution to answering this complex question by investigating differences in how important brain structures are activated when women view images of their children and of their own dogs. Their report is being published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

“Pets hold a special place in many people’s hearts and lives, and there is compelling evidence from clinical and laboratory studies that interacting with pets can be beneficial to the physical, social and emotional wellbeing of humans,” says Lori Palley, DVM, of the MGH Center for Comparative Medicine, co-lead author of the report. “Several previous studies have found that levels of neurohormones like oxytocin – which is involved in pair-bonding and maternal attachment – rise after interaction with pets, and new brain imaging technologies are helping us begin to understand the neurobiological basis of the relationship, which is exciting.”

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  • In order to compare patterns of brain activation involved with the human-pet bond with those elicited by the maternal-child bond, the study enrolled a group of women with at least one child aged 2 to 10 years old and one pet dog that had been in the household for two years or longer.
  • Participation consisted of two sessions, the first being a home visit during which participants completed several questionnaires, including ones regarding their relationships with both their child and pet dog. 
  • The participants’ dog and child were also photographed in each participants’ home.

The second session took place at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH, where functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – which indicates levels of activation in specific brain structures by detecting changes in blood flow and oxygen levels – was performed as participants lay in a scanner and viewed a series of photographs.
  • The photos included images of each participant’s own child and own dog alternating with those of an unfamiliar child and dog belonging to another study participant
  • After the scanning session, each participant completed additional assessments, including an image recognition test to confirm she had paid close attention to photos presented during scanning, and rated several images from each category shown during the session on factors relating to pleasantness and excitement.
The imaging studies revealed both similarities and differences in the way important brain regions reacted to images of a woman’s own child and own dog.

Areas previously reported as important for functions such as emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction all showed increased activity when participants viewed either their own child or their own dog. 

A region known to be important to bond formation – the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SNi/VTA) – was activated only in response to images of a participant’s own child. The fusiform gyrus, which is involved in facial recognition and other visual processing functions, actually showed greater response to own-dog images than own-child images.
"Although this is a small study that may not apply to other individuals, the results suggest there is a common brain network important for pair-bond formation and maintenance that is activated when mothers viewed images of either their child or their dog,” says Luke Stoeckel, PhD, MGH Department of Psychiatry, co-lead author of the PLOS One report.   
"We think the greater response of the fusiform gyrus to images of participants’ dogs may reflect the increased reliance on visual than verbal cues in human-animal communications.”
Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.

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Do Persons Living with Dementia Feel Abandoned?

When I left Dotty alone she quickly became scared, confused, anxious, and I soon learned she feared that I was going to abandon her.

Does you Alzheimer's patient get angry, act mean, and start accusing you of things that just were not true? Any of these?

Do you leave your patient alone while you go to work? Are they angry or difficult to deal with when you come home?

Do you sometimes go out for 15 minutes or hours and leave your Alzheimer's patient alone?

When you return, or shortly after you return are they mean, or difficult to handle?

If so, then it is likely they are feeling some type of abandonment.

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