One way to create excitement at a nursing home is to bring in an animal. Pets — animals in general, really — have been known to provide great benefits for seniors, giving them a sense of comfort, companionship and purpose.
And it doesn’t have to be your standard golden retriever.
Ms. New Hampshire Senior America Katherine Salanitro brings her oxen to nursing homes, letting the residents nuzzle and pet the 2,400-pound animals.
“They’re very gentle because they’re trained to be. The patients and residents at the nursing home respond very well to Chipper when he visits,” Salanitro said. Chipper is just one of her “boys” that she has trained as a therapy animal. Salanitro, of Gilford, raised oxen and competed in oxen-pulling competitions her whole life.
She typically visits during the warmer months because with an animal so large, the nursing home residents are required to move outdoors in order to visit with the oxen. The visit gives patients a reason to get up and moving.
After the initial surprise, people respond to the oxen the same way they do to dogs, cats and other therapy animals. Petting the animals’ soft skin and nuzzling with them generally has a calming effect on humans.
Emily Nutter, the activities director at Salemhaven, a privately owned nursing and rehabilitation center in Salem, said the presence of animals can relax people.
“It gives them somebody to take care of. It helps lower their blood pressure, and it calms them. When they’re all hyped up, stressed in the home … petting an animal, gently stroking it, gives them something to focus on,” Nutter said.
The visiting pets can also spur an exchange of stories and socializing. Nutter said that when certain animals visit, the interaction will trigger memories among residents.
“Most people relate to the pets that come in. The animals that come in spark conversations,” Nutter said. “Visiting animals also makes them use their senses,” she said. Cats will snuggle in residents’ laps, and dogs will kiss people’s hands at Salemhaven. Their presence provides a sense of intimacy in a place where many residents may at first feel uncomfortable or alone.
Tom McGee brings his dogs Dixie and Buster to Salemhaven every month to visit with the patients and residents. Many at Salemhaven know his friendly rescue dogs Dixie and Buster by name, and some of the residents look forward to spoiling the dogs with cookies and treats. Others are eager to see the animals because it gives them a reason to get up, dressed and active.
“Many of them had pets growing up, and interacting with Buster and Dixie will ignite stories and memories,” Tom said.
Nutter said that it’s typically dogs and cats that are brought into the nursing home; however, the benefits that pet interaction provides can come from all kinds of animals. Salemhaven residents have been visited by birds and by different animals from the Salem Animal Rescue League, and Nutter noted that at least once a year the nursing home and rehabilitation center is visited by a pair of miniature horses clad in Build-A-Bear sneakers.
Healthypet.com notes that pets may help elderly owners live longer, healthier and more enjoyable lives. The site referenced a study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society in May 1999 that demonstrated that independently living seniors who have pets tend to have better physical health and mental well-being than those who do not. Pets and animals in general encourage action from their owners — they help keep their owners’ joints limber and flexible. They also help seniors carry out the normal activities of daily life.
In addition, animals help people stick with regular routines and act as a buffer against social isolation. Grace Bonner, a senior who works at the Nashua Senior Center, can attest to that.
Bonner credits her little dog Dylan with keeping her active and well. Bonner took on her little Yorkshire terrier just four years ago, and saved the now 12-year-old pup from being euthanized. But now it seems he’s saving her — Bonner said that she cannot imagine her life now without him.
Feisty little Dylan keeps Bonner active, waking her up at odd hours to go to the bathroom and requiring her to take him out on long strolls outside. Despite, or maybe because of, his high-maintenance ways, Bonner calls Dylan the “best little guy who’s ever come into her life.”
“Without him, I would be lonely and a completely different person. He is so full of life and love, and he provides so much company.” She advises other seniors to acquire pets.
“Pets keep you going, give you something to do. With them, you don’t have to do things by yourself,” Bonner said. “They are so much company, and they take the loneliness out of your life. But most of all, they just have so much love to give you,” Bonner said.
Those interested in pet therapy with elderly people may want to check out the Greater Derry Humane Society’s Pet Therapy class, which will teach attendees about therapeutic use of pets as companions on Tuesday, March 6, at 7 p.m. at Marion Gerrish Community Center, 39 W. Broadway, Derry.