Friday, August 25, 2006

Gruff-f-f Love

(HealthDay News) -- Puppy love in a nursing home?
That's the upshot of a new study that found nursing-home residents who had regular visits from a dog felt better and less lonely -- better, in fact, than after visits with a dog and other people.
Researcher Marian Banks, a registered nurse, and her dog Sparky, a friendly Welsh corgi mix, visited 37 residents at three long-term care facilities in St. Louis who scored high on a loneliness scale.
Half the residents spent 30 minutes alone each week with Sparky. They were allowed to interact with the small dog without any interference or input from Banks.
The other half visited Sparky with one to three other nursing home residents present. Participants sat in a circle and could interact with the dog and other residents.
Initially, the researchers thought the dog would act like a "social lubricant" and increase interaction between residents, thereby reducing their feelings of loneliness.
But that wasn't the case.
"It was a strange finding," said William Banks, professor of geriatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and co-author of the study. "We expected the group dog visits were going to work better but they didn't."
Instead, the residents, ranging in age from 75 to 90, found that some quiet time with a furry friend was a lot nicer.
The study suggests that pets make people in nursing homes feel better by simply being with them, not by enhancing socialization between other residents, the researchers said.
"A big percentage of the individuals that had Sparky on a one-on-one basis had a tremendous drop in their level of loneliness as measured by the UCLA loneliness scale," Marian Banks said.
The study also found that the loneliest individuals benefited the most from the canine companionship.
The research will appear in the March issue of Anthrozoos, a journal that focuses on human-animal interaction.
The majority of nursing-home residents who participated in the study had pets during their childhood and adult years.
Marian Banks said the residents who spent time alone with Sparky confided in him and reminisced a great deal, talking about previous experiences with pets.
Sandy Ransom is vice president of the board of directors for the Eden Alternative, whose goal is to offer a more enriching environment in nursing homes, in part, by allowing pets to be kept at the facilities.
She said she wasn't surprised by the study findings.
"I think it gives validity to what we've known all along" she said.
The Eden Alternative has programs in place at 300 nursing homes across the country. Residents participate in caring for the animals, giving meaning to their lives and relief from loneliness, Ransom said.
"We haven't done a scientific study on (the impact of pets on residents) but some things you really don't need numbers," she said. "You can just see that people are doing a lot better."
Loneliness is a common problem for people in long-term care facilities, often due to the loss of loved ones and independence, health-care experts say.
While Ransom is an advocate for keeping pets full time in long-term facilities, she doesn't like the idea of bringing them in for visits.
"We feel that animal-assisted therapy, in essence, is sort of cruel to the elders because you give them something that they can't have and then you take it away," she said. "That's why we believe in resident animals for people who choose to have them."
More information
The National Library of Medicine has more about nursing homes.

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