Those of us who own a pet know that they can make you very happy, but recent scientific research* has proven that animals can also improve health complications and even make us healthier overall. To celebrate World Mental Health Day held on the 10th of October 2015, we have been reflecting on how we work with dogs to help the elderly with mental health illnesses through our community project TheraPaws.
It has been found that regular animal contact reduces levels of depression and stress, and even provides empathy and helps individuals re-connect with their loved ones through the animal*. This is just one reason why we set up our TheraPaws project at The Mayhew Animal Home.
TheraPaws aims to bring the elderly and animals together to help one another, with our volunteers regularly taking their own dogs into local London care homes, hospitals, hospices and day centres. Currently we have 72 dedicated volunteers with 31 calm, registered TheraPaws dogs, who specialise in visits to the elderly who often have a level of dementia and sometimes have some form of mental illness like depression or stress. At the moment we provide 22 visits, which we have increased by 7 since January 2015 and are looking to increase even more by the end of the year.
We regularly visit many centres in North and West London, which are local to where our volunteers live. During our TheraPaws visits, the elderly can enjoy cuddles with the volunteers’ dogs and even feed them tasty treats from the palm of their hand.
Luke Berman, TheraPaws Project Manager has found that the visits have a very positive effect on the residents. He said, “We see the effect a dog visit can have just from a resident’s change in body language and facial expressions. Staff tell us that residents often watch at the window for the TheraPaws team to arrive and that they enjoy talking about how lovely the TheraPaws dogs are after the visits. In fact, every time we leave a centre we are often asked, “When are you visiting again?””
Not only can our dogs’ visits help the elderly with mental health issues, but they can also help tackle social isolation and loneliness by bringing people into a communal space where they can interact with the dog. The residents will often turn to each other to start a conversation about how lovely the dog is, or in hospitals a patient who can be nervous or stressed about their condition can get some relief and respite when they see a happy, waggy tail approaching.
* According to the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
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