Animal Assisted Therapy: Drawing out older adults

There is no human experience more common than an experience with animals. Most people at some point in their lives have had a pet. Whether it was a cat, dog, bird, or farm animal the bond between a human being and pet is one that incredibly strong. Our pets love us unconditionally and sit by our side during life's happiest and saddest moments. For some during the pandemic, pets were the only source of physical engagement.

Many older adults tend to become withdrawn due to changes in their physical condition or mental status, or from isolation. Animals have a unique way of drawing individuals out of their shells by bringing joy and connection.

Animal Assisted Therapy is a type of counseling where animals are used to assist individuals in therapy to reach their goals. Their goals may be physical, mental, emotional, and/or social. Counseling sessions can be individual or in a group setting. Regardless of the type of program, all animals should be temperament tested, given a complete veterinary screening, and receive obedience training before beginning to work with patients.

Animal assisted therapy allows therapists to use one treatment tool, an animal, to target a variety of goals. In an inpatient residential setting, these goals include, but are not limited to, improving patients' range of motion, strength, endurance, balance, mobility, and sensation.

During the same session, using the animal, cognitive and perceptual deficits can be addressed. The patient also receives psychosocial benefits such as building rapport, increasing self-esteem and motivation, and stress reduction. The most popular animals used in this type of therapy include dogs, cats, and horses; however, birds and even hermit crabs are used!

Dr. Christina Strayer, CEO and therapist of Animal Assisted Therapy of the Triangle with North Carolina locations in Cary, Clayton, and the Outer Banks, uses animal assisted therapy to help individuals overcome PTSD, depression, and anxiety. She has a great relationship with neighboring facilities and even brings her pets to a local long-term care facility.

Dr. Strayer lets her dogs, bird, and a sweet little hermit crab that comes out if its shell as if to say "hello" serve as a focal point in difficult conversations and healing opportunities. Since the onset of COVID-19, she has been able to use her animals effectively during virtual counseling sessions as well. Her animals create an outward focus for the elderly and help to elicit memories.

When she brings her animals to facilities, residents immediately light up. Connections among people who otherwise may not appear to have similarities bubble to the top and conversations become more comfortable. Dr. Strayer also effectively uses her animals to provide therapy to the care partners of those afflicted with chronic conditions. Older adults continue to struggle with long-held stigmas around the use of therapy. Animals often act as a bridge and enable individuals a comfort level in discussing their struggles.

If you are caregiving for a loved one and would like to get connected with others in our community who are walking the same path, join ABC11's Caregivers Corner moderated by Nicole Clagett. The group has more than 1,600 people supporting one another and sharing wonderful information and resources daily. More helpful tips about this topic can be found on ABC11's Caregivers Corner section.
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