Unlocking dementia with furry friends

The gentle touch of healing

The gentle touch of healing

Kirby’s here!

I couldn’t believe this is what I heard as I entered the dementia care facility we visit. The usually silent room was filled with a joyful greeting.

Each week the clients become more comfortable and familiar with the dogs. And the dogs are more at home there as well.

Animals have been found particularly beneficial with patients experiencing memory loss and dementia. The skilled handler can use their time visiting to elicit memories of the patient’s own pets, their feelings about pets, discussion of what happens from one visit to the next. People with dementia can relive their experience over and over and attach sense memory to the animals, and it has been found that people with little or no memory or cognitive capability will remember the animals, even their names, over human experiences.

So when our clients remembered Kirby’s name and verbalized it, we knew something quite extraordinary had occurred.

Kirby just loved it. He has his “fans” but we usually begin with him visiting those people not too sure about dogs. He makes the rounds of the room and greets everyone, some with a smile, some with a tail wag and some he just looks deeply into their eyes. Those are the people he knows need a bit more encouragement to engage with him.

Then we move on to the new people. They are sometimes surprised to see a dog but most often show no recognition that Kirby is a dog. Some people think he is a human baby, some think he is a stuffed animal and some recognize that he breathes and smiles and feels their touch.

Lastly we go spend quality time with the few residents who are cognizant and enjoy his visit for what it is – a respite from the dark world they live in. Kirby can be held and cuddled safely by these clients and he thoroughly enjoys this part of his visit.

As a volunteer and observer, you learn a lot about the path of dementia and Alzheimer’s as each week you are faced with decline. One week someone pets Kirby and whispers in his ear and the next walks right past him.

But if there is just one moment of clarity, one moment of joy, one moment of peace, the visit is worth it for dog, for handler and especially for client.