With an ageing population, greater demands are being placed on care providers, with older adults in care homes at an increased risk of social isolation, loneliness and depression.
But new research shows that Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) could be a cost effective answer to bridging the current gaps in care and increasing the quality of life of care home residents.
AAT is already being used across the UK and London-based charity Mayhew founded their own successful programme TheraPaws in 2012. This programme aims to improve mental, physical and emotional wellbeing in the community and sees volunteers taking their dogs into homes, hospitals, hospices and day centres in London to engage with residents and patients.
This year, Mayhew worked with the Department of Mental Health and Social Work at Middlesex University to research the benefits of AAT, and their ground-breaking report has been launched in Parliament this week.
The research aimed to discover the impact the TheraPaws programme had on 54 older adults in care homes with and without dementia diagnoses over a 12-week period and looked at the perceived short and long term benefits of AAT of staff residents and volunteers.
According to researchers, the sessions appeared to positively impact participants’ mood and emotions from the very start, with dogs acting as a catalyst for conversation, enabling social interaction so staff could speak to residents on a deeper level.
Among residents without dementia, the study reported a 12% increase in the quality of life of residents with the majority enjoying and looking forward to the visits. The visits also created a happier atmosphere and lifted the mood for hours after the dog had left.
As well as the benefits residents reported, volunteers also recognised the importance of physical contact and sensory stimulation provided by the dogs, particularly for those with cognitive impairment such as blindness or deafness.
The results of the study reveal the major therapeutic role that dogs can play in the lives of vulnerable people. Evidence suggests that dogs can help reduce loneliness, improve mood, encourage communication, bridge gaps between people and create a sense of community and companionship.
Niamh Carwood, TheraPaws Programme Coordinator, said “We have been getting positive feedback from TheraPaws visits since the programme started, so we’re thrilled to now have proof of the impact animal assisted therapy has on people’s lives.
“This research backs up everything we know and have been saying for years – that not only does AAT improve the quality of life for elderly people in care homes, but that spending time with a dog also helps combat loneliness and decreases feelings of isolation and exclusion; due to an animals unique ability to be a non-judgemental and receptive companion.”
Cara, a TheraPaws volunteer, started visiting care homes with her dog Hugo in 2018. She says, “The residents are always so pleased to see Hugo. They get so much pleasure out of his visits, stroking him and feeding him treats.
“If anybody wants a cuddle, Hugo goes up on their bed – he is a sensitive dog and knows exactly what each person needs. He curls up next to people to help calm them down if they are sad or in distress.”
Researchers at Middlesex University endorse AAt as a positive and meaningful addition to a care toolkit which can easily be implemented at a relatively low cost.
Dr Briony Jain, Research Fellow and primary author of the report, said “Our research showed that for some care home residents, particularly those with dementia, the TheraPaws visits offered a moment of joy with a dog that could have lasting effects on the resident’s mood.
“There were also many other positive benefits facilitated by the TheraPaws visits – including triggering a memory of a forgotten time or place; the opportunity for residents to interact socially with the volunteer (who represented a friend and a link to the outside world); and a chance for care home staff to get to know the older person better, outside of the usual care routine.
“There is just so much value in this type of programme for the vast majority of care home residents and their quality of life that it cannot be overlooked.”
The findings were revealed in parliament along with a number of recommendations to an audience of MPs, celebrities, industry contacts and policy decision makers – including Dr Lisa Cameron MP, TV Vet Marc Abraham and local Mayor Cllr Darryl Brown of Hammersmith and Fulham.
Caroline Yates, CEO of Mayhew, said “We are delighted to be releasing this ground-breaking research and report with Middlesex University on Mayhew’s TheraPaws programme. The report enables us to show the proven and very real benefits of animal assisted interventions in the care home setting – something, of course, as passionate dog lovers we felt deep down all along!
“It is extremely exciting that TheraPaws is being validated in this way and lays the ground for further research into the benefits of our programme across the social care and mental health sectors.”
With the success of the study, Mayhew now plans to continue working with Middlesex University and intends to undertake new research into the impact of AAT on mental health in 2020.
Mayhew wants to raise awareness of the positive impact of AAT and is calling on the general public to get involved. Find out more here or join them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to showcase the transformative impact dogs have on everyone’s lives. Upload a photo of a dog who makes you smile, add the hashtag #dogstransforminglives and tag two friends to take part.