Nov 1, 2016

How to Conduct Activities Using Pets or Stuffed Animals In Alzheimer's and Dementia Care

Research indicates that activities involving pets and stuffed animals are beneficial to the health and well being of people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

By Marie Marley
Alzheimer's Reading Room

I previously published articles here about How to conduct music activities, how to conduct art activities, and how to conduct activities involving children and dolls with people who have Alzheimer’s.

Today’s article discusses how to conduct activities with pets and/or stuffed animals in Alzheimer's care and dementia care.

How can pets benefit Alzheimer's and dementia patients?

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There is substantial research supporting the notion that activities involving pets (and, in some cases, stuffed animals) are beneficial to people living with Alzheimer’s.

Activities involving pets and stuffed animals usually reach those in the latest stages of the disease—even when they no longer talk or recognize loved ones.

The purpose of this article is to provide down-to-earth, practical advice on how to involve pets and stuffed animals to engage, comfort, communicate with, and bring joy to your loved one who is living either at home or in a care community.

The tips presented are based on my personal experience as a caregiver, articles and books I have published, articles and books published by other specialists in Alzheimer’s care, and information I obtained during interviews with national experts.

Advice for Conducting Activities Using Pets
  1. Only use pets who are well behaved and interact well with the person. (Heerema, Vann)
  2. Use the type of pet (dog, cat, or other) the person may have had before developing Alzheimer’s. (Marley & Potts)
  3. If possible involve a pet the person knows. (Marley & Potts)
  4. Bathe the pet—if it’s a dog—before the visit. (Vann)
  5. Have treats available for the person to give the pet. (Vann)
  6. Give the person some responsibility for pet care, such as brushing or feeding the animal. (Bell & Troxel)
  7. Be flexible and end the pet visit if your loved one or the pet doesn’t enjoy it. (Vann)
  8. If visiting your loved one in a care community, you may want to allow time to take the pet around for other residents to see and pet it. Many of them will love it! (Marley)

Advice for Conducting Activities Using Stuffed Animals
  1. Do not force a stuffed animal on a person who doesn’t want it. (Marley)
  2. Stuffed animals are more likely to benefit people in the mid- and late-stage of Alzheimer’s who may not be aware that the stuffed animal is not a real pet. (Marley)
  3. Interact with your loved one and the stuffed animal. (Marley)
  4. Don’t use the stuffed animal as a babysitter. (Marley)
  5. Buy a stuffed animal made especially for the elderly or people with Alzheimer’s (Marley)

Where to Purchase Stuffed Animals for the Elderly and People Who Have Alzheimer’s:

JoyforAll (Extremely lifelike mechanical cat and dog for elderly people)

Memorable Pets  (Various stuffed animals made especially for people with Alzheimer’s)

The Controversy Regarding the Use of Stuffed Animals With People Who Have Alzheimer’s

As I discussed in my article on involving children or dolls with people who have dementia, some family members, staff and experts on Alzheimer’s care believe that giving a childlike toy to someone with Alzheimer’s is beneath the dignity of the person and shouldn’t be done. But many change their minds once they see the person’s positive reaction.

I asked my panel of experts about this issue.

The Brenners stated,
“We’re for anything that gets people with dementia to open up and be present.”
Irene Moore told me “If family members or staff of care communities are upset by it, they should step aside. The reaction of the person with Alzheimer’s is what matters.”
Finally, Rachael Wonderlin believes that you have to change how you communicate with a person who has dementia.
“For them the doll [or stuffed animal] may be their whole world,” she said.
One of My Personal Experiences Involving Pets.  I volunteer to visit some ladies with Alzheimer’s at a local memory care community. One day I took my little puppy to visit my favorite lady, Ruth, who was a grand dog lover. Ruth was ecstatic and we played with Christina together endlessly. When I left, Ruth looked at me and proclaimed loudly, “This is my best day since I’ve lived here!”

One of My Personal Experiences Involving Stuffed Animals.  I took Ed, my beloved life partner of 30 years, an endless procession of stuffed animals. He loved each one more than the one before. Then I made up games that we played with them. It was wonderful and formed the basis for connecting with each other on a deeper level than ever before.

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

This is the last of four articles that explore how to use the following with people who have Alzheimer’s: 1. Music, 2. Art, 3. Children (and Dolls) and 4. Pets (and Stuffed Animals)

Interviews Conducted for This Article and my previous article, How to Conduct Activities Involving Children (and in Some Cases) Dolls With People Who Have Alzheimer’s:
  1. Tom and Karen Brenner, authors of ‘You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care.’
  2. Rachael Wonderlin, author of ‘When Someone You Know Is Living in a Dementia Care Community.’ She also has a blog
  3. Irene Moore, MSW, Professor Emerita, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and former Director of the University of Cincinnati – Maple Knoll Village Geriatric Evaluation Center.

Related Articles

Care of Dementia Patients

The Frightened, Angry, Anxious, Mean Dementia Patient

What is a Memory Care Facility?

Literature Cited:
  1. Madeline Vann, How Animal Therapy Helps Dementia Patients.
  2. Virginia Bell & David Troxel. Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care.
  3. Marie Marley & Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN. Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers
  4. Esther Heerema. How Does Pet Therapy Benefit People With Dementia

Marie Marley is the award-winning author of ‘Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy.’ Caregivers say it helped them a lot, and former caregivers say they wish they’d had it when they were caregivers. She is also co-author (with Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN) of 'Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers'. Her website Come Back Early Today contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer’s caregivers.

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