Dogs are a Best Friend for Those with Dementia

Can service dogs help those with dementia or Alzheimer's? Yes. Trained service dogs can help someone with dementia navigate the world for a better quality of life - easing some of the burdens on family caregivers.

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Dogs are a Best Friend for Those with Dementia
8 Min Read November 24th, 2018 Updated:October 20th, 2021

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 a TV or movie star. My guess, however, was this dog was very famous within the owner’s family. This animal 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 an 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.

Service Dogs Help Those with Demenia Navagate Life

People with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia find it difficult to deal with everyday life, and their cognitive decline can even put them in danger. As dementia gets worse, as it usually does over time, the ability to perform normal daily living activities 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 of 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.

Service Dogs Part of Caregiving Team

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

Pets Also Offer Companionship

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 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 a 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 proper care for a pet.

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

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.

Things to Consider 

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 love and affection 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 food, 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 for 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, they might 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, and 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.

Aging Means Planning

As America gets older, we will need to address the financial costs and burdens of longevity. Often, families are placed in crisis management. 

When a family fails to plan, your choices are limited. Professional and semi-professional care is not cheap. Most of this care, including that required by dementia patients, is 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 burdened 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.

LTC Insurance Can Beneift You and Your Family

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 affordable and provide asset protection, case management, and peace-of-mind for loved ones.

When doing online research, start with the LTC Cost of Care Calculator that shows you the average cost of long-term care services where 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 - Cost of Care Calculator - Choose Your State | LTC News.

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

Seek Help from a Professional When Planning for Long-Term Care

Since there are so many insurance companies and available plans getting professional help when planning for future long-term health care is essential. An experienced and licensed Long-Term Care Insurance specialist will help you navigate the many options and make affordable recommendations based on your age, health, and family history.

Remember, when you speak with a Long-Term Care Insurance specialist, they will ask you many detailed questions about your health, family history, and finances to determine your eligibility and suitability.

This conversation is a required conversation that benefits you. This way you won’t over-insure and spend more money than you need. Remember, design correctly, Long-Term Care Insurance is affordable for most people, and every insurance company also has different rate structures and underwriting criteria.

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.

You can find a trusted and qualified Long-Term Care Insurance specialist here - Work With a Specialist | LTC News.

Service Dogs for Older Family Members Can Be Helpful Now

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

These trained animals will improve the quality of life for your loved one and ease some of the stress on the rest of the family.

However, being prepared before you experience changes in your health, body, and mind will make everything easier on your family decades from now.

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About the Author

Linda is a freelance writer interested in retirement planning, health and aging.

LTC News Contributor Linda Kople

Linda Kople

Contributor since October 31st, 2017

Editor's Note

The job of being a family caregiver is tough and emotionally demanding. Most family caregivers are unprepared for the role, and they are untrained as well.

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