Therapy Animals Brighten the Lives of Older Adults
On the heels of National Love Your Pet Day, we fondly remember a local story that went viral a couple of years ago starring a precious teacup poodle by the name of Nala.
“She’s an angel,” 90-year-old Ruth New says, as Nala climbs up on her bed and nuzzles in beside her. “I love her and she loves me,” says New.
As the story goes, one day Nala’s owner decided to bring her into the care center he worked at so she could visit with the residents while he performed his routine job duties. Little did he know that this visit would mark a sense of “calling” for Nala, soon becoming a co-worker of his very own. She took it upon herself to regularly work the floors and greet her friends with licks, tail wags, and mutual gazes. Her tenaciousness went as far as learning how to navigate the elevator system.
“She’d rather ride [the elevator] alone than with people, because she knows where she’s going,” Nala’s owner Doug Dawson smiles. “If she could, she would push the button herself.”
The relationship between pets and people extend beyond simple companionship to a number of proven health benefits that span the physical, emotional, and social realms. Animal-human interactions lower blood pressure, alleviate loneliness and emotional isolation, boost self-esteem and psychological well-being, and enhance verbal interactions and thinking.
Catholic Eldercare frequently sees four-footed specialists like Nala making the rounds in our communities, thanks to our Pets With a Purpose program. These dogs, cats, and rabbits dispense the gifts of love, loyalty, and affection to those we serve.
When Helen* first came to Catholic Eldercare, she rarely left her room. Having lived alone for so long, she had a hard time adjusting to the new environment. Staff encouraged her to visit with other residents and participate in activities, but she remained isolated.
One day, a pet therapy volunteer stopped by Helen’s room and scooped a New Zealand hare onto her lap. After some warming up, one hand slowly lifted and started petting the bunny. Then the other, as a grin gradually spread across Helen’s face. It was only a matter of days after this interaction occurred where Helen was engaging with her neighbors and attending daily Mass.
Helen took an important step to a better life, thanks to a volunteer and an animal who she connected with in a powerful way. Simply petting an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, increasing the feel-good hormone serotonin and lowering levels of cortisol, the primary hormone responsible for the stress response.
Pets can make those we serve feel needed, and that can translate into a greater sense of purpose. During what can be a lonely time of life, Helen’s situation showed that animal-human interactions can be a bridge to more socialization, lowered stress, and a renewed interest in life. Through healing and personal connection, our animals touch lives in a way that we, as people, cannot. The mere presence of a cat or dog in the room enhances moods and lifts spirits like nothing else can.
*name has been changed to protect identity