Throughout the years of caring for my dad as he battled Alzheimer’s disease (and during the years since his passing) and now mom, with vascular dementia, I’ve become a firm believer in pet therapy. I have learned how an affectionate and loveable pet can help to alleviate some of the anxiety and depression experienced by those living with dementia-related diseases.
When I was caring for my dad, there were times I would see him become saturated with confusion. I would simply place our cat on his lap and casually tell him, “I think Kitty is lonesome and is in dire need of love and attention.” This gave both his hands and his mind something to focus on. As if on cue, as the purring commenced, my father’s anxiety and bewilderment vanished.
A common characteristic of those living with dementia can be loss of ambition. Including a pet as part of their environment helps to motivate them with a sense of responsibility and purpose.
Many times I walked into our kitchen and found five bowls of milk on the floor. (I never had to worry about the cat starving.) Then my father would ask, repeatedly, if I had fed the cat. Despite the repetition, I soon learned our furry friend made my life easier.
Pet ownership has been associated with lowering blood triglyceride levels in the human body. This helps to increase activity and, hopefully, socialization. Having a pet around the house may even help break up the solitude the forgetfulness creates.
Some pets really seem to be sensitive to the patients’ needs and most of them enjoy the attention. They don’t get upset and walk away when hearing the same story over and over or weathering constant chatter which makes absolutely no sense. Perhaps they’re better listeners or, at the very least, not as judgmental as humans.
If your loved one has a pet that decreases his or her anxiety and leaves a feeling of calm, then that animal has just accomplished a part of your goal as a caregiver. Of course, like any other type of intervention, this might not work for everyone. However, I believe it’s worth a try. If you have friends or neighbors who own a pet, ask them to bring their four-legged friends over for a visit. The results may indeed surprise you.
Pets have that uncanny way of sensing things no one else will. For instance, the last two weeks my father was still with us, Kitty absolutely refused to enter Dad’s bedroom. The night before he passed, I was sitting beside his bed, holding his hand, when I observed Kitty take two steps over the threshold, then turn and run as if she was being chased by a banshee. She wanted no part of dad’s demise.
Following my father’s passing, Kitty became “my” caregiver, sitting on my lap, consoling me through the sorrow of my father’s final departure. A true friend indeed.
In the obverse, however, everyone knows a pet is not just a cat or dog or ferret or bearded dragon. Pets become a beloved member of the family. When they die, it’s also a severe and traumatic loss.
A friend of mine recently contacted me because her dad, whom she is caring for, just lost his dog of 14 years. This has thrown him for a loop, increasing his confusion tremendously. He’s a complete mess, constantly asking where his dog is, wanting to take him for a walk. His loving daughter/care partner has repeatedly explained his companion has passed, but that only increases his depression.
During the last conversation I had with her, she told me they had the dog cremated, and she has now placed the urn on top of her father’s dresser. This act has brought some comfort and understanding to him.
I have spoken with many other caregivers about this matter of pet demise, and have asked for their suggestions. I got some great responses:
One caregiver has placed a grave marker in the yard, even though the pet was never actually buried there. This keeps everyone in check with the reality of the passing.
Another caregiver replaced her mother’s deceased cat with a stuffed toy cat. She says her mom has the toy cat on her lap almost all the time. To her mom’s mind, this is a legitimate surrogate.
Some caregivers will want to go out and get a new dog. I would advise, however, against a puppy. You, as a caregiver, already have your hands more than full and trying to train a “youngster” and take care of your loved one at the same time may be a little too much to handle.
Years ago, we lost a cat which was deeply cherished by my mom. I never had the heart to let my mom know the cat was gone. I knew the devastation this was going to cause her, so I found ways to work my way around the conversation about where the cat was. Somehow, I got fortunate and another Tabby cat walked into our lives in which the resemblance was uncanny.
Gary Joseph LeBlanc, CDCS
Dementia Spotlight Foundation