Most of us are familiar with service dogs who aid the blind. These great friends of humanity are also available for people with other disabilities, too. Could service dogs be good aids for seniors who wish to age in place?
While the benefits of pets to the elderly are known, a whole new area of exploration is emerging in the use of service dogs in the home of the aging-in-place senior. Service dogs can be trained to bring the phone to an elderly person and even to take laundry out of the dryer. Some can turn lights on and off, open refrigerators, and retrieve dropped items off the floor. Some even answer the doorbell, fetch medicine at the sound of a special alarm, wake up people, respond to oven timers by insistently bringing the person into the kitchen to check food in the oven, carry items from person to person, and give caregivers a much-needed respite, all the while reinforcing the senior's independence.
Caregivers Know their Charges are in "Good Paws"
Dogs cannot replace caregivers but in conjunction with a caregiver a dog can provide multiple benefits to an elderly person. With the aid of a trained service dog, elderly persons can safely walk around and even be guided on sidewalks, street crossings, and in front of red and green lights. With a service dog along, seniors can unerringly find their way home, too. Their independence is enabled with the help of these gentle, intelligent, responsive and proud animals.
Experimental programs with "dementia dogs" have been launched in Australia and Scotland. The dogs have completely won over caregivers and served alike. They are literally lifesavers at times. "Dementia dogs" are trained to help the cognitively-impaired in partnership with a caregiver. If the caregiver is a spouse, the caregiver receives much-needed peace of mind, knowing that if he or she has to leave for groceries or even to go to work, the loved one is in good hands--or good paws, as it were.
Therapy Pets Are a "Different Animal"
Therapy dogs and cats are "a different animal" than service dogs, but their usefulness has been proven. These animals are used to visit hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, etc. They are desensitized to wheelchairs, medical equipment, medical smells and the sudden touch of outstretched hands. Such animals have been known to bring smiles, joy, happiness and peace not only to the elderly but also to child patients, those suffering from addictions and veterans benighted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therapy dogs comforted hearts at Newtown, Connecticut after the horrific school shooting. They have been brought in after natural disasters to bring hope and help to devastated human hearts.
In spite of their great usefulness, therapy animals do not have the same legal protections for access that service animals do. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows therapy animals to enter restaurants, stores, office buildings and many other places that a therapy animal would not be allowed to access.
If you want your senior to have access to all facilities with his or her helping animal, make sure it is a service animal covered under the ADA and is certified and used as such.
Service dogs can be trained specifically to deal with visual impairments, hearing loss, or to help with mobility (some can even tug a wheelchair along). Other service dogs are trained to multi-task and be useful to seniors in multiple ways.
Getting a service dog may take some patience and money. Assistance Dogs International (http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org) can help find service dog groups in most areas of the world. Pet Partners (https://petpartners.org/) was founded in Oregon as the Delta Foundation and serves nationally; Pets on Wheels serves Maryland (http://petsonwheels.org/) and Therapy Dogs International (http://tdi-dog.org/), which was founded in New Jersey but which serves all fifty states, are also sources of information on dogs who help humans.
Some groups have waiting lists. The dogs undergo training and proof of the recipient's impairment--such as loss of visual acuity due to glaucoma--may be necessary to access and obtain some dogs. Financial assistance may be available and in the hopes of many families of seniors, there will be more to come. The resounding success of pilot programs in Scotland and Australia assures that this emerging field of service for dogs can be a major help for humankind.
Man's best friend does it again!
Aged Care Guide. Dogs for Dementia Pilot Expanded. October 2, 2015. Available online at https://news.agedcareguide.com.au/2015/10/02/dogs-4-dementia-pilot-expanded/.
Canine Companions for Independence Program. Worldwide programs providing a better way to deal with aging, ProgramsforElderly.com. Available online at http://www.programsforelderly.com/homecare-canine-companions-for-independence.php.
International Science Times. "Dementia Dogs," Trained to Help Elderly, Begin Service in Scotland. July 15, 2013. Available online at http://www.isciencetimes.com/articles/5635/20130715/dementia-dogs-help-elderly-kaspa-oscar-scotland.htm.
Stringfellow, Angela. Benefits of Service Dogs for Seniors. Seniorhomes.com, July 27, 2015. Available online at http://www.seniorhomes.com/w/benefits-of-service-dogs//.