Look into the eyes of an animal. Many reflect back something deeper, some strange thoughts or hidden emotions. We feel they’re almost human, as they look at us with curiosity, attention, and even (we think) some kind of distant understanding and empathy.
This is true, of course, of the great primates, with whom we are closely related. But we also see it in dogs and cats to different degrees, in some intelligent birds like crows and parrots, and even in the intelligent and curious octopus. It’s sort of an aching mystery, like looking at a distant relative. We wonder if there is something that we’ve lost, and if there is a tool we can discover to open that communication back up.
In a way, it’s similar to our relationship with loved ones who are losing themselves, or are already lost in the terrible throes of dementia. We long for connection, and want to find where they are. We want to find a way to communicate. That’s why it’s fitting that therapy with animals may hold a key to battling Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. And the best avenue for that may be with horses.
The UC Davis School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center has partnered with the Connected Horse Project in a pilot study geared towards helping people with Alzheimer’s improve both behavior and communication skills. The basic idea is that working with these stubborn, heavy, but gentle and beautiful animals is a stimulative way to relearn skills and rediscover self. While the program just started, there are already promising results. It’s another step toward discovering the mystery of who we are, and what it means to be human.
The Benefits of Animal Therapy
Obviously, UC Davis and the Connected Horse Project aren’t the first people to understand the benefits of animal therapy for older adults. Animal therapy (also called “pet therapy”) has long been used to help older adults who are facing the onset of dementia.
There are a lot of reasons why researchers and aging specialists think this is such an effective strategy, and it has to do with keeping the mind active. Some of the benefits of animal therapy include:
- Socialization: As we get older, we often get more isolated. This in and of itself is dangerous, and should be combated with social day programs and group events. But not everyone can attend those, and some people are reluctant to make new friends. Having an animal in the home creates a bond, and forms a friendship. That can help eliminate some causes of isolation and depression, which themselves can accelerate mental illness.
- More human interaction: Think of time spent at dog parks, on neighborhood walks, at vets, or in groups for older adults with pets. Having a pet almost forces you to meet more people.
- Responsibility: When you have a pet, you have to take care of it. You have to feed it, allow it to get exercise (depending on the pet) and take care of other needs. This helps to establish patterns and routines, which the mind uses to keep itself strong.
- Love: Think about how excited a dog gets when they see their owners. It’s unconditional, and it flows both ways. This sort of love is something that people can miss when they get older, and can help keep their minds active.
Granted, this assumes an older adult is able to care for a pet at home. But even interacting with one during day programs (or the pet of a family member or caregiver) can help an older adult both mentally and physically. Petting a dog offers, as Alzheimers.com tells us, “health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and heart rate, reducing the stress hormone cortisol, and boosting levels of the feel-good hormone, serotonin.”
In the Bay Area, there are many groups that encourage and facilitate pet therapy for older adults. Some of these include:
So: responsibility and connection. This can help before later stages of dementia have set in. But what about after? The people at Connected Horse and UC Davis believe that at this stage, horses can do what dogs cannot.
Horse Therapy and Alzheimer’s in the Bay Area
Horses are graceful and powerful, and have a certain majestic nobility. But they aren’t easy. They require firmness and confidence. That’s why researchers believe they can help people who are already deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s.
The project, which started at Stanford and is being enlarged at UC Davis, focuses on body language—the horse’s body language. They don’t have a verbal language, and communicate to their herd through physical, non-verbal cues. That’s also what horse-riders have to pick up one. Gestures, movements, a stillness or a restlessness: that’s what matters.
In the same way, many people suffering from dementia seem to be “post-language,” which can be scary and sad for them and frustrating for caregivers, often leading often to burnout. So these trials encourage dementia sufferers to understand the horses. They take care of the animals—leading them around, feeding them, and simply interacting with them on a non-linguistic basis. The idea is that the patient will be able to pick up on these cues on some level, stimulating places in the brain that have long been dormant.
While it’s still very early, there have been positive signs. Participants in the program have shown the ability to understand their horse companion and to change the way they’re interacting with it. If a horse is restless, they are more calm, and if a horse is stubborn, they move it along. There is still work to be done, but it shows that there may still be ways for Alzheimer patients to communicate. And an additional benefit is that caregivers are also able to interact with the horses—a wonderful break to what can be a frustrating daily routine.
When people suffer from Alzheimer’s, we feel we are losing them. We feel we are losing a human connection, and even if we try to stay connected for as long as possible, it almost inevitably goes away. But maybe it isn’t gone. Maybe music can bring it back. Maybe new medicines can. Or maybe we can make a connection, on a level we couldn’t imagine, with gentle intelligences so different, but sometimes similar to our own. Maybe connecting means finding our loved ones in different ways, through different mediums. Maybe that grace we see in the eyes of animals is the bond we all share.
Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources to help older adults and their caregivers live independently, with dignity and adventure. Get in touch with us today to learn more.