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Arcare aged care residents discover the power of pet therapy

Pets deliver powerful, heart-warming results with aged care residents

95-year-old Arcare Glenhaven aged care resident, Mona Robertson had spent 88 years being terrified of dogs, due to a traumatic experience as a child. Thanks to Maple, an eight-year-old Labrador who visits Arcare Glenhaven regularly as part of a Pet Therapy program, she's recently overcome that hurdle – showing you're never too old to face your fears and make a new furry friend! 

The team at Hills Pet Buddies visit the NSW residence with the much-loved black Labrador, Maple, and other playful pets on a weekly basis and have done so since Arcare Glenhaven opened in 2017.

During one of the recent pet therapy visits, the Arcare Glenhaven Lifestyle staff thought Mona might enjoy meeting Maple, given that she spends a lot of time in her room, and it would be good to get her out and socialising.
When asked if she would like a visit from Maple, Mona refused at first exclaiming, “the last time I patted a dog was when I was six, when it bit me”. After reassuring her that Maple was a therapy dog, and very friendly, she hesitantly agreed.

At first, the team positioned Maple facing away from Mona to provide comfort and reassurance to Mona as the two got to know each other (a tactic often used during first-meets). Mona began patting her back. Slowly but surely, Maple began to turn around until the two were facing, with Maple sitting next to her feet. Mona patted her head and ears with no hesitation. At one point, Mona said, “she looks like she is smiling at me. Oh, what a sweet dog she is!

When the staff asked if Maple could visit her again, Mona said “yes please, I enjoyed seeing Maple very much! I never thought I would have been patting a dog today.”

Since then, the two have had several catch ups, with the friendship only growing stronger.

But Mona’s not the only one who has been on the receiving end of puppy love at Arcare Glenhaven. Lifestyle Coordinator, Chloe Bernard said they originally introduced the Pet Therapy program to assist with welcoming and settling new residents, however continued the program even after they hit capacity earlier in the year, due to the strong response from residents.

“For many of our residents moving into aged care can be a challenging time as they have to leave their homes, some selling,” Chloe said.

“The pet therapy program has been able to provide comfort to our residents during the transition. We also wanted our residents to reminisce about their lives and pet therapy is a great ice breaker to get the residents talking.”

Pet Therapy has been proven to help with many issues such as anxiety, depression, speech and even eases loneliness – which is especially prevalent among senior community members.

“We have noticed many improvements in our residents’ cognition, the biggest being the increased ability to communicate. We have particularly noticed this in our sensitive care unit with residents who have dementia,” Chloe said. “There are a few residents that use very little verbal communication, however when the pet visits, we have noticed almost every time we can begin to engage them in a conversation.” 

The dogs in the Hills Pet Buddies program work on a six-week rotation at Arcare Glenhaven, meaning the residents get the opportunity to meet and make friends with a range of wonderful dogs and cats. There are currently four pets on rotation at Arcare Glenhaven: Merlin, a five-year-old Cavoodle, Duchess, a four-year-old Ragdoll cat, Ruby, a three-year-old Pugalier (lead image) and of course, Maple. 

PONCHO (fawn), INCA (grey) and TUI (white)
Photo Credit: Sandra Mehri
Hills Pets Buddies also have therapy alpacas, Poncho, Inca and Tui, located on its property which Arcare has visited, bringing small groups of residents for some outdoor R&R, and the opportunity to meet and feed the alpacas.

Hills Pet Buddies’ founder Sandra Merhi says using pets for therapy is incredibly effective in breaking down barriers, as it allows people to be themselves and comfortable during the interaction.

“Animals have no preconce
ived expectations and do not discriminate when they meet us. There is no obligation to enter into conversation, so they are a valuable resource when it comes to engaging people with limited speech or cognitive awareness,” Sandra says. 

With dementia residents, we often have the most profound breakthrough interactions. We have had people who refuse to speak or walk or interact socially respond only when a pet visits. Often, they will be moved to recount stories of their own pets from the past.” 

Mona patting Duchess, the Ragdoll cat
Following the success of Arcare Glenhaven’s Pet Therapy program Arcare NSW Community Marketing Officer, Emma Henshaw said they are exploring opportunities to implement similar programs at other residences in the state.

“At the moment both Glenhaven and Oatlands run a Pet Therapy program and we are looking to expand this to both Warriewood and Kanwal, subject to what is available in those areas,” Emma explains.

Numerous Arcare residences across VIC and QLD also participate in Pet Therapy programs and have found it as equally beneficial in boosting morale with both residents and staff.

Little Lunar, a one-and-a-half-year-old Chihuahua, has been visiting the residence at Arcare North Lakes (QLD) since she was a puppy, and many of the residents have watched her grow up – some even have photos of Lunar as a puppy displayed in their rooms. Equipped with her own personal employee ID tag, Lunar is just like any other valued team member at Arcare North Shore. She is very sociable and has developed one-to-one relationships with many of the residents. She can identify specific people and rooms where she will get treats and cuddles.

In addition to Pet Therapy programs, many sites have introduced ‘residence dogs’.

Most days of the week, those visiting Arcare Helensvale St James will be greeted by a rather unusual (and furry) team member, one-year-old Cavoodle Milly, who can often be found hanging out at the reception desk with her owner Luan, greeting visitors or doing the rounds visiting the residents.

Originally, Luan started bringing Milly in to work for her own-wellbeing, as she was too little to be left alone at home. But as it turned out, it was the residents and staff who benefitted the most. They all adore Milly and couldn’t imagine the residence without her. 

She is very sociable, making her the perfect fit for the role of ‘assistant receptionist’.

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