August 27, 2014
Animals have been used in psychotherapy for many years and are increasingly being introduced into nursing homes; however, few formal, structured studies have been conducted to assess their effects. To determine whether an animal-assisted intervention (AAI) program might benefit elderly nursing home residents with dementia, researchers from Dresden, Germany, conducted a pilot study that compared an intervention program that used animals with one that did not. “We wanted to know whether visitations that included friendly dogs would work just as well or better than visitations by friendly people alone,” said the study’s lead author, Sandra Wesenberg, research associate, Dresden University of Technology, during an interview with Annals of Long-Term Care: Clinical Care and Aging.
Wesenberg and colleagues adapted the Pet Encounters program by Linda Buettner to work with 17 nursing home residents (13 women and 4 men) with mild to severe dementia. The participants met in groups comprised of four or five individuals for 45 minutes twice weekly for 6 months. One weekly session was an AAI session with a dog and a friendly dog handler; the second weekly session was a control session that included a friendly person only. During the AAI sessions, the participants pet, groomed, and played with the dog while talking with the dog handler about animals, whereas during the control sessions the participants talked with the friendly person about everyday topics and did light activities. During the first, third, and sixth month of the study, Wesenberg recorded verbal and nonverbal social behavior and emotional expressions to assess for behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia using a coding system that was developed from several existing coding systems for dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and animal-assisted therapy.
“Both interventions seemed to enhance the psychosocial wellbeing of the participants,” said Wesenberg, noting that participants attended both types of sessions willingly and interested. “But the AAI resulted in more social interactions and positive emotional expression,” she said. The AAI also had faster results, with longer periods of physical contact, verbal communication, and attentiveness. Wesenberg suggested that this might have been, among other reasons, because “most of the participants had owned pets in their life and enjoyed talking about them.”
Wesenberg’s pilot study was part of a project studying AAI on people with dementia funded by the German Research Foundation, and another larger study is planned to verify these promising results. If the positive effects are confirmed, there may just be more resulting smiles in nursing homes soon. —Leanna Taylor