It is evidenced and accepted that the contact with living beings and nature evokes calmness and a sense of wellbeing in people. Biophilia - or the 'love of life' - hypothesis has been tested and researched in a range of settings. It supports the theory that people with damaged or compromised attachment relationships, such as can be present in people with a dementia, can particularly benefit from the relations with companion animals because of the lack of judgement and the perceived empathy. Unconditional positive regard, empathy and understanding are at the heart of person centred practice and are enhanced by the presence of animals (Wilson, 1984). Animals, and specifically dogs, can act as a social support and stimulate conversation, particularly when situations are mildly stressful and the person with dementia finds 'small talk' difficult to follow (Kruger et al.,2006).
In 2009, Alzheimer's Support introduced 'Therapy Dogs' into their day care settings. The two whippets are very placid animals and are present at the day clubs, moving freely in the space as they would in a family home. They also have designated sofas where club members often join them to simply sit with them or to brush their fur. The effect the project has had - and continues to have - on members is captured and illustrated in photography.
Day Club members interact with the two therapy dogs almost from the point of their arrival on the premises in the morning. The dogs function as a 'welcome party' which visibly diminishes the person's anxiety and acts as a 'reminder' of the pleasant feeling the club's activities can evoke. If we consider a person with dementia more as a 'feeling' being rather than a rationally 'thinking' one (Sheard, 2015), the tactile sensation of casually stroking the dogs will cause positive sensations on multiple sensory levels. In many cases, the day club activities succeed in peeling back the layers of confusion the dementia puts upon a person and uncovers the underlying personality and lets it shine through. The presence of the dogs and interaction with them accelerates the process and helps members to settle into the club. It could also be observed that, when club members are confused about where they are going when they are being picked up by their transport for the day club, pictures of the dogs seem to 'remind' them and reduce their stress and anxiety. The photographic records of club members interacting with the dogs demonstrates a high rate of positive expressions, of calmness as well as animated activity.
As an additional beneficial phenomenon, test results have shown that persons accompanied by animals are consistently described as friendlier and less threatening (Lockwood, 1983). This leads to club members and particularly first time visitors to react more calmly and become more trusting in stressful situations.
The resulting photography is shared with carers and relatives and also used widely to promote Alzheimer's Support services and to demonstrate the results achieved in day care settings. The positive effect of the dogs was particularly considered when the organisation won the GlaxoSmithKline Impact Award in 2015.
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