From "Milestones" , published by Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) is a private, non-profit organization serving as Philadelphia county’s Area Agency on Aging since 1973. Milestones July 2013 issue.
Animal therapy lends a helping paw
By Alicia M. Colombo
Helen Martin extends a $1 bill towards Bayou as she calls, “Here, boy.” The golden retriever turns to catch her gaze and excitedly walks to her, placing his chin on her leg. He then takes the bill in his mouth and immediately hands it to his master.“I come from a pet family. I love animals,”says Martin, who turns 86 this month. Martin attends Mercy LIFE’s North Hancock Adult Day Center, 3240 N. Hancock St. in Philadelphia, four days a week. She participates in many scheduled activities and trips, but most enjoys time spent with her furry friends at the monthly Pet Therapy Day.
As a Facility Dog, Bayou has been trained to respond to the needs of disabled people in the Caring Paws program, a division of Caring People Alliance.
He obeys 40 commands, including sit, stay, turn and come here. He can also complete more advanced tasks, like picking up a dropped credit card from the ground, or lifting his paw to help people in a wheelchair untangle his leash without bending down.
But the most valuable aspect of pet therapy is the love the animals share with their human companions through emotional and physical interaction.
Animal therapy has proven to be a great way to help seniors battling cognitive issues. It can help decrease feelings of loneliness and boredom, and cope with loss and depression after close friends and family members pass away. Playing with the animals also has a fitness benefit, as it encourages seniors to engage different muscles.
Photo by Alicia M. Cololombo
“Tactile stimulation is very important in animal therapy, especially with depressed people and Alzheimer’s patients,” says Marjorie Shoemaker, director of the Caring Paws Program.
“We use 25 different animals, including ferrets, guinea pigs, rabbits and rats, to provide a variety of auditory and visual stimulation. Rats have a horrible reputation, but they are very intelligent and highly interactive, which makes them the most popular therapy animal after dogs,” Shoemaker says. She helps facilitate pet therapy sessions like this one at 38 locations in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware counties.
Many of the seniors at the Mercy LIFE Adult Day Center grew up on farms, and animals were part of their daily lives. But over time, they’ve had to give up their pets when they moved or became too ill to care for them. Pet therapy provides the benefits of pet ownership without the work or expense.
“Spending regular time with animals helps seniors deal with loss, stress and the effects of aging or disease,” says Elizabeth Johnson, recreational therapy supervisor at Mercy LIFE. “A lot of things are out of your control as you grow older. The animals don’t judge; they provide unconditional love. Our residents call the therapy pets their babies and relate to them as children.
Their faces light up when they see the animals every month. Nancy McCullough still remembers Princess, the dog she raised from a puppy when she was a child. “Having a pet and losing it is too hard. I never got another dog after my Princess died,” said McCullough, now 78, who faithfully attends the monthly Pet Therapy Days.
For more information:
• Caring Paws Program - 215-763- 0900 or www.caringpeoplealliance.org
• Mercy LIFE provides community based long-term care services for older adults in South and North Philadelphia, and Delaware County – 215-339-4747 or www.mercylife.org
Contact Alicia M. Colombo at: