Not long ago I was on a flight from Los Angeles to Dallas. Across the aisle from me was a German Sheppard. The dog was very well behaved but was there for a reason. No, unlike some dogs on flights you see today, this one was not a member of the Screen Actors Guild and was not famous. My guess, however, this dog was very famous within the owner’s family. This was a certified service dog helping an older person with dementia.

Don’t confuse these highly trained dogs with emotional support pets. You can find those on flights as well. People with disabilities, including persons with aging issues, can use a service animal to help them in daily life. These dogs are trained to perform many tasks. These include providing stability for a person with unstable gait, picking up items for a person who uses a wheelchair, even alerting an individual who has hearing loss when someone is approaching from behind.

With training, these service dogs can provide help for the person suffering from dementia and peace-of-mind to the family and the caregivers of the individual.

People with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia find it difficult dealing with everyday life. Their cognitive decline can even put them in danger. As dementia gets worse, as it usually does over time, the ability to do the normal activities-of-daily living, without supervision, becomes limited or impossible.  Generally, caregivers at home or placement in memory care in an assisted living facility or nursing home become the ideal situation for the individual. A service dog can often provide comfort and assistance when a person is living at home or, on occasion when allowed, even in assisted living. 

Alzheimer’s.net says researchers have thought pets are good for all us, but even more so with older people or those suffering from health issues. Studies have shown the health benefits like lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduction of stress hormones. Research even shows that pets can boost levels of the feel-good hormone, serotonin.

Many experts are now talking about using service dogs, who are highly trained to start with, to be part of the caregiving team for those with various forms of dementia. In fact, some facilities are hiring pet coordinators to aid in the care of residents’ pets.

“It has been well-established that pets have a therapeutic and often calming impact on people in general,” said Dr. Thomas Schweinberg, staff neuropsychologist for the Lindner Center of HOPE in Mason, Ohio.

Psychology Today reports dogs are now being trained specifically for help with those with cognitive decline. The first is in Israel and was the brainchild of Dafna Golan-Shemesh, a social worker with expertise in caring for Alzheimer’s patients and her partner Yariv Ben-Yosef, a professional dog trainer.

A similar project was initiated by students at Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art’s Product Design Department and then further developed by a partnership between Alzheimer Scotland, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs Scotland.

According to research, dogs love predictability and routine. This is what trainers use to develop the skills these dogs will need for help with those with dementia. Dr. Michelle Radwanski, a well-known veterinarian at Argonne Animal Hospital in Lemont, Illinois sees the positive influence pets can have on people, even those who don’t have health issues.  

Whether you have a certified service dog or just a four-legged friend to provide companionship, these animals can be an important part of everyday life for anyone who is getting older and suffering from physical or cognitive difficulties.

“Animals improve our mood, improve our health and make us smile more. Every pet has a place in a family, but it has to be a right fit,” Radwanski explained.

She suggests that the selection of the dog should be made with consideration of who is taking care of the animal and the overall environment. Radwanski says those who are older or have significant physical or mental limitations, may have difficulty providing the right care for a pet.

Often, a professional caregiver or family member will help take care of the service dog’s needs.

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These dogs can create strong bonds with the individual, the caregiver and members of the extended family. Experts say even a person with dementia will have a bond with the animal and often will be able to communicate simple commands. It is, however, the dog’s ability to respond to specific needs that provide the additional peace-of-mind and comfort for the person and the family.

There are several positive points you should consider if you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, or are receiving other forms of long-term care services and supports due to illness and aging:

  • These dogs provide unconditional love and affection.  This alone can improve mood and quality of life for many people.
  • Depending on the situation, the individual can be given certain responsibilities to help with the animal. This might include walking the dog, putting down water or good and even simple pet grooming. This gives the person a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
  • The dog can put some fun and enjoyment back into the person’s life. It can also add some fun or the caregiver and other family members as well. 
  • Sensory stimulation. Experts say as a person’s cognitive decline progresses additional sensory stimulation becomes even more important.  It can reduce stress, add comfort and even reduce agitation and anxiety.
  • Opportunity for socialization. In some situations that might be able to talk about their dog and discuss the dog’s personality with others. This can also lead to better interaction with grandchildren and reduce the stress a young child might have interacting with Grandma or Grampa who might be suffering from health and memory issues.

Dr. Radwanski reminds us that the dog has health needs as well. She says older people with limitations can have difficulty providing the right care for a pet. Be sure someone is responsible for overseeing the service dog’s needs, including regular check-ups with a local veterinarian.

As America gets older all of us will need to address the financial costs and burdens that come with longevity. Often, families are placed in crisis management. When a family fails to plan the choices you have are limited, Professional and semi-professional care are not cheap. Most of this care, including that required by dementia patients, are not paid for by health insurance, including Medicare and Medicare Supplements. This means hard-earned savings can get drained or even wiped out.

Family caregivers become stressed and burden with the responsibilities of being a caregiver. Studies have shown it even impacts the caregiver’s health as they deal with career, family and the job of being a caregiver.

Retirement experts suggest considering Long-Term Care Insurance as part of an overall retirement strategy. The best time is when you are in your 40s and 50s. If you own a business, tax incentives are available. These insurance policies are very affordable and provide asset protection, case management and peace-of-mind for loved ones.

When doing online research, start with the LTC NEWS MAP which will show you the average cost of long-term care services in the state you live. It will also show you the availability of Long-Term Care Partnership plans in your state and any tax-incentives that may be available. Click here and find your state.

Find an experienced Long-Term Care Insurance specialist by clicking here.

Start your research ideally prior to your retirement so you can take advantage of low premiums and good health discounts.

Remember, when you speak with a Long-Term Care Insurance specialist, they will need to ask you many detailed questions about your health, family history, and your finances. In order to determine eligibility and suitability, this is a required conversation which benefits you. This way you won’t over-insure and spend more money than you need. Remember, design correctly, Long-Term Care Insurance is very affordable for most people.

The specialist will also review your state’s Long-Term Care Partnership Program and if it benefits you in your situation. So be sure to return their phone call when you make an online request. This way they can obtain the appropriate information to give you accurate information.

Every insurance company also has different rate structures and underwriting criteria.

But if your family member is already in a care situation, or soon will be, a properly trained service dog and bring happiness and peace-of-mind to the whole family.

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