Sharing pets changes lives

by Kelli Coomes

  • Click here to see pictures of people sharing their pets with senior citizens.

It’s 9:55 a.m. at the Murray Care Center. Seniors are in the recreation room listening to Christmas music being played on a piano. Heads nod on occasion; eyes are slightly glazed over as the seniors look at things beyond the walls.
At 10 o’clock, heads turn and smiles appear as the entertainment comes through the door. Dogs of different breeds, colors and sizes come walking in with their owners.
Gaylen Derr, the executive director of Therapy Animals of Utah, helps direct animals and owners around the room to different seniors, making sure everyone meets at least one dog today. Derr smiles at everyone and talks to people as they pet the dogs. Santa and Misses Claus walk around handing out stuffed dogs to everyone.
Therapy Animals of Utah is a program in Salt Lake City that helps register people and their pets for animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities. They also help coordinate events like this at senior centers around Utah.
Deborah Carr and William, her sheltie, walk around visiting the seniors in the room. “There was a man just sitting off to the side, all alone,” Carr said. “William could tell he needed him. They just sat there and stared at each other for ten minutes, William just staring up at him and the man staring back. He talked to William in a low voice like they were old friends. It brought me to tears, how special that moment was for the two of them.”
William wanders the rows of seniors looking at everyone, stopping at each chair. The music is playing in the background and many reach down absent-mindedly and pet William. When they’re done, he moves to the next. He needs no prompting from Carr. William visits a senior center home at least once every other week; he seems to know what to do to help these people.
Lola, another sheltie, and her owner Susie, walk around socializing too. Susie has been a registered team member since 1999 and this is her third dog she’s registered. She also has two more shelties at home that are registered.
“I love it,” Susie said. “I should have done it sooner.”
For the seniors that cannot get to the recreation room, the animals are taken to them. A group of the dogs follow their owners from room to room.
Joanne has been working with Therapy Animals of Utah for a number of years with her Chihuahua, Bambi.
“It’s been so rewarding,” Joanne said with a smile as she hands Bambi off to Thomas Covert, a senior resident. Covert cannot get out of bed easily and lies there with Bambi on his lap.
Although Bambi is usually part of the reading program at elementary schools, she likes to visit seniors. Bambi has been registered for two years and has been active in visiting people that need her.
Liebe, a Leonberger, walks the halls with his owner. Requests come from seniors that want to see the huge dog that’s walking past their room. His head sits quietly on knees and the side of beds while he’s petted and talked to. Those that are a little frightened and surprised by his size are soon monopolizing him, his gentle nature winning them over.
There are other dogs and owners wandering around the recreation room and the halls. Liberty, a black poodle, is energetic as she meets new faces. Charlie, a golden retriever, and Callum, a Shetland sheepdog, bring smiles and laughter wherever they go.
All of these pets have been registered through either Therapy Animals of Utah or the Delta Society. The Delta Society was started in the mid-1970s in Portland, Ore., by a veterinarian and a psychologist. According to their Web site, they believed that animals help people and that there wasn’t enough research and information out there. They began one of the first credible researches that showed the positive impact animals have on humans.
Over the course of years, they have found multiple benefits to pet therapy and activities. In a compiled list of research benefits, they list lower blood pressure, a decrease in loneliness for those in long-term care facilities, lower cholesterol and many other benefits. Animals also help increase the perception to cope with illnesses and loss of loved ones.
Research done by the Delta Society showed that brightly-colored fish in tanks can help control behavior and increase the eating habits of people with Alzheimer’s.
Animal assisted therapy (AAT) and animal assisted activities (AAA) are different in a number of ways.
AAT is always under the supervision of a therapist, said JoAnn Turnbull, director of marketing at The Delta Society. A specific goal for the patient is established before the therapy animal visit takes place, and the results of the session are recorded in the patient’s records, Turnbull explained.
The interaction with the animal is personal. The elderly patient is the only one playing with the pet. The times and dates are set and constant. The length of the sessions is determined by the physician and what they think the patient can handle.
AAA is very different from AAT in that the visits are much more casual for the pets and the patients. They are usually held in homes, senior centers and other facilities. They have more of a meet-and-greet atmosphere. There can be many elderly people playing and interacting with an animal at one time. There is no set time for these visits and the visits can be as long or as short as the owner wants.
Susie and her three shelties are part of the workshops for training pets and owners to go out and participate in these activities.
There is a screening for the pet to make sure it is reliable, predictable and can be controlled by its owner or handler. Therapy Animals of Utah and the Delta Society look for animals that are people-oriented rather than animal-oriented. It won’t leave the people it is assisting to play or check out another animal nearby.
They look for animals that can remain calm around sudden or loud noises are easy for the elderly to handle. It is harder for them to respond quickly enough if the animal panics or bolts. Animals that enjoy being held, petted and hugged for long periods of time by people that are not the owners are another thing they look for, Derr said.
There are also training courses for pet owners. They make sure that the owners also have good social skills and can handle the pet effectively in different situations.
Therapy Animals of Utah are always inviting volunteers to come and join them. They can register any domestic animal, birds, dogs, cats, llamas, miniature horses, guinea pigs, pot-bellied pigs and many others.
For the people that have never heard of AAA and AAT or are interested in learning more, Deborah Carr suggests reading up on the subject and then coming out with a team to an event. People can contact Therapy Animals of Utah to see what they do and see it for themselves.
“Coming with us makes people want to do this,” Carr said. “It changes your life.”