America is a nation of animal-lovers. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association and other pet-related organizations, between 64% and 68% of all U.S. households have at least one dog or cat. In addition to the joy and unconditional love these furry friends give us, medical experts are now also recognizing their potential benefits to our health.
In fact, interacting with animals has been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure, relieve feelings of loneliness, and elevate mood. Among people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia, the positive results are particularly noticeable. Yet most pets require substantially more care than these patients—or their caregivers—can deliver.
So Capital Caring Health (CCH) has launched an initiative that gives dementia patients all the fun and benefits of having a real live pet without the usual physical and financial demands. Thanks to modern technology and innovation, our new Companion Pets Program provides lifelike, warm and fuzzy, interactive robotic cats and dogs to improve the quality of life for patients with dementia, their loved ones, and caregivers alike.
For patients with diminished cognitive abilities, making every day the best it can be is the goal, no matter where they fall across the continuum. Every person with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia experiences a different progression of disease and symptoms, which can range from mild to acute. But those in the moderate to advanced stages of illness often show anxiety, agitation, anger—even aggression—along with stress, depression, and loneliness. Not surprisingly, family members and caregivers may also struggle with some of the same emotions.
To counter those negative feelings and actions, CCH strives to create a quiet, calm environment for each dementia patient. We supplement that with art and music therapy which can further soothe many patients. The addition of the Companion Pets Program now gives us another tool to help them live their best lives possible.
Through sensors, motors, and other sophisticated technology, each robotic cat or dog is programmed to respond to a person’s presence, voice, and touch. For instance, the puppy barks, wags its tail, and has a subtle heartbeat. And just like a real cat with a mind of its own, the robotic kitty can randomly mew, open and close its mouth and eyes, and move its head and paws. It also vibrates slightly each time it purrs.
Such lifelike behavior creates a two-way interaction between the companion pet and their person, bringing pleasure and joy. But there are other important benefits, says Capital Caring Health’s Lee-Anne West, M.D., Associate Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations.
“Both research and anecdotal evidence from family members and caregivers show robotic pets help patients on multiple levels,” says Dr. West. “For one thing, the pet’s responsiveness and companionship can reduce the loneliness and social isolation so common among dementia patients. And the robot’s lifelike presence can give patients a renewed sense of purpose as they “care” for the little dog or cat.”
Other benefits of robotic pet ownership may include:
- A reduction in anxiety, agitation, stress, and depression, and an enhanced sense of well-being
- Improved social interaction and communication with family and caregivers
- The ability to self-soothe with a safe activity that does not require close supervision
- The resurrection of happy memories of former beloved pets, or other times in the past that gave them pleasure
The companion pet can also be used to redirect behavior when a dementia patient is anxious or agitated. In the same fashion, it may help with the transitions a patient experiences from the disease’s progression or a change in care setting. Some studies have even shown that this type of companion pet therapy can reduce the need for anti-psychotic medications, improving quality of life.
For now, the new CCH Companion Pets program is for veterans with dementia. With the help of the Veteran’s Administration and Washington Gas, we are providing free pets to vets in our care, and at the request of a family member, to vets who are not CCH patients but reside in one of the communities we serve.
In the near future, we hope to expand the pet giveaway to reach even more patients with dementia, as well as a very special group near and dear to CCH’s collective heart—the children in our care. By giving each of our pediatric hospice patients a sweet companion of their own to cuddle, we’ll be able to help reduce stress and discomfort, distract them from their illness, and give them something to play with, letting them just be kids again. To make these dreams a reality, we are relying on donations—including the purchase of a furry robotic pet—to help us reach our fundraising goals.
To learn more about the CCH Companion Pets program and how you can help—please click here.
Beyond our new companion pet therapy, CCH is expert in advanced illness care for dementia including Alzheimer’s. Our care teams use a variety of approaches tailored for each individual to make every day the best possible, no matter the prognosis. Help also extends to families and caregivers with education about care approaches, what to expect as the disease progresses, and support groups for those experiencing the loss associated with this diagnosis. To learn more about dementia and our care, click here.