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Animal therapy for memory care residents

Horses: Nature’s Gentle Therapists for Memory Care Residents

There is a reason that we have something called “horse therapy”. These majestic, gentle animals have a presence that has been known to calm anxieties and infuse a sense of joy in those around them. This can be especially true for those living with dementia. Stroking the nose of a horse and looking into its large, intelligent eyes can create a deep personal connection that, while mysterious in many ways, is generally acknowledged as therapeutic by physicians, psychologists and, we might add, anyone who has experienced it for themselves.

No one understands this better than Bobbi Kelley, Community Relations Director for Porter Place Memory Care, in Tinley Park, Illinois. A competitive rider herself, Bobbi likes to share her beautiful show horses with the residents and staff members of Porter Place. “Little compares to the pleasure of sharing my passion of horses with others,” Bobbi says.

Recently, Bobbi brought two of her horses, Baloo and Zack, to Porter Place for, what Bobbi refers to as some “horsing around” with the residents. Nearly 100% of the residents participated, feeding the horses carrots, petting them and showering them with kisses. Six residents even got up in the saddle and rode!

For a couple of the residents, the experience was transformational. One previously non-verbal resident, not only spoke, but used a full sentence, proclaiming, ‘Zack, you are beautiful and need an apple!’. Another resident rode around and sang a few bars of “Back in the Saddle Again”. Not only were the residents engaged and energized, the staff members were moved as well. “Yet another reason I love my job,” Bobbi says.

Animal therapy is an important part of creating opportunities for individuals with dementia to connect to the world around them. If you have a loved one challenged with dementia, seek opportunities to bring them together with a pet. Whether it is as small as a hamster or as large as a horse, you will undoubtedly witness a transformation that is well worth the effort. You may also consider contacting your local memory care community and asking when they are next planning to bring animals to visit the residents. Ask if you can bring your loved one to enjoy the experience with them.  

“We pride ourselves on our creativity and active lifestyle opportunities, thus taking a ‘far beyond the ordinary’ approach to memory care,” Bobbi says. “These kinds of events truly capture the essence of our ability to create moments of joy and connect memories with current day sensory skills. The power of pet therapy is truly moving!”

(The photo shown with this article is of Porter Place resident, Mildred Ott.)