Dogs may help save caregivers from COVID-19 exhaustion

Dogs may help save caregivers from COVID-19 exhaustion

Dogs may help save caregivers from COVID-19 exhaustion

For six years, Pat Ward and her therapy dog, Baby, had been visiting residents at the Island City Assisted Living Facility in Eaton Rapids, Michigan. Showering love on Baby was among the highlights of the week at Island City.

The 8-year-old Brittany dog is blind (Baby’s eyes have been removed), cannot hear well, survived cancer and still struggles with heart problems. Stephanie Hall, the facility’s human resources director, describes Baby as a “perfect fit” for Island City because “she shares some of the same challenges” as the residents.

After the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Baby and her handler had to find another way of helping to boost the spirit of seniors on lockdown. Island City, along with other senior living facilities nationwide, closed their doors to visits from family, friends, and non-essential workers to reduce the risk of exposing seniors to the coronavirus.

Older adults in senior living communities, as well as older adults who live in their own homes, felt socially isolated while sheltering in place. Primary caregivers, whether a family member or paid staff at a facility, became exhausted as the pandemic stretched from weeks into months. During this time, a few Island City residents asked Kelly Klassen, the director of activities, when they could see Baby again. Klassen told them that she did not know.

As time went on, therapy dog handlers found an alternative, but safe, ways to brighten the day of seniors and take some of the pressure off caregivers.

Therapy Dogs Benefit Both Seniors and Caregivers

Studies have found that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can have a positive impact on the mental and physical health of adults and children. According to UCLA Health, the simple act of petting an animal releases an automatic relaxation response and the release of hormones that play a part in elevating moods. AAT can also:

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Improve cardiovascular health
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Decrease overall physical pain
  • Increase mental stimulation
  • Provide an escape or happy distraction
  • Provide comfort
  • Reduce loneliness

Caregivers witness changes in mood and behavior in adults who spend time with therapy dogs. For instance, some caregivers say that older adults have more energy, seem more motivated, and more social after playing with a dog. In addition, the time that seniors spend with an animal companion gives caregivers a breather or time do another chore or relax.

Therapy dogs aren’t only for lonely older adults staying in place during the pandemic. Caregivers, whether an individual taking care of a loved one or a paid caregiver in a facility, are recipients of reduced anxiety and an uplifted mood after watching the person, or people who they are caring for, playing with a furry companion.

Some caregivers, particularly those who work in long-term care facilities, own pets that provide emotional support to them just as therapy dogs do to seniors. Studies have found that caregivers need to find ways to maintain their own health and well-being, and pets help to reduce stress.

Service Dogs Benefit Self-Isolating Older Adults with Dementia

Research also shows that therapy dogs have an impact on adults with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. In a study published in the journal BMC Psychiatry in September 2019, researchers reviewed six AAT studies, from 2016 to 2018, involving people with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers concluded that service dogs may work as a beneficial or complementary treatment, especially in the area of behavioral and psychological symptoms.

A 2002 study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research focused on the effect of a service dog on problem behaviors of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The dog was allowed to stay for four weeks in an Alzheimer’s special care unit. Residents showed significantly fewer problem behaviors during the day over the four-week period, but there was no significant change in behaviors in the evening.

In Florida during the pandemic, socially isolated adults with Alzheimer’s disease could not visit with therapy dogs, but they were given the next-best companion: a robotic pet.

The state of Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs and Ageless Innovation, a Rhode Island-based company teamed up to help isolated seniors weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Ageless Innovation, formed by a group of former employees of the Hasbro toy company, developed robotic pets that simulate the feel and sounds of actual cats and dogs.

Ted Fischer, co-founder, and CEO of Ageless Innovation said that independent clinical studies have found that robotic pets can improve the quality of life and sense of purpose for people living with dementia. Studies also found that alternative pet therapy can significantly reduce agitation, social isolation, depression, and sadness among older adults.

Therapy Dogs Returning to Nursing Facilities

Although the COVID-19 pandemic continues, some long-term care facilities are beginning to restart AAT programs in a limited capacity as facility administrators begin to ease up on visitor restrictions.

So that seniors and their caregivers can continue to enjoy visits from their canine friends, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCI) released guidance to protect handlers, their animals, and residents. Some of the directives are the same as the ones the federal agency has for humans such as:

  • Keep at least 6 feet away from people and other animals who are not participating in a visit.
  • Have handlers and participants wear a mask during the visit.
  • Have handlers and participants wash their hands after having contact with an animal.

Back in Michigan, Ward and Baby returned to Island City Assisted Living Facility, This time, however, the residents cannot pet Baby because Ward keeps Baby outside. Ward wears a mask and holds a poster that has a red heart with a smiling face and closed eyes (in tribute to Baby).

Residents stand by their windows in delight to welcome their favorite visitors. Ward likes to watch their reactions when they see Baby. Just for a while, Ward said, Baby’s visit takes away their isolation and their pain.


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