Volume 12, Number 3, 2004

Pet-assisted therapy to reach the elderly

Twenty-five excited residents of the Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home sat in a circle listening to Suzanne Smith, CHNS '00. explain why she and eight dogs, two guinea pigs and volunteers from the University were in their recreation room.

"I'm a UD graduate student interested in studying animal/human interaction," Smith says. "I came here last year and had such good feedback and such a good time that I decided to come back. Is everybody having a good time?"

After a collective, resounding "yes," it was obvious the residents felt the same way.

Smith earned her bachelor's degree in human nutrition and dietetics and is working on a master's degree in health promotion. Her focus has always been on physical fitness, but she has a special interest in the stress-relieving, restorative effect that animals have on humans, especially the elderly. Her pet-assisted therapy trips to nursing homes have only strengthened that interest, and this trip was no exception.

The residents at Little Sisters of the Poor seemed delighted to be nuzzled, licked and pawed by their furry visitors, including the Peruvian guinea pigs, with their long coats and big coal-black eyes, brought by Kimberly Doucette, administrative assistant in the College of Marine Studies.

The residents were animated and engaged as they asked questions about the animals or gave them treats. One woman had been a dog trainer and was able to "talk shop" for a while. Even those with arthritis would strain to touch a dog or stroke a guinea pig. And, all around the room you could hear, "Good dog," "Pretty girl." Handlers had their dogs sit, lie down and shake hands to the delight of the seniors.

Smith said she became interested in pet-assisted therapy when she worked at J.P. Morgan Chase and volunteered for its Global Days of Service month, when employers give employees time off to do volunteer work for a social service provider.

"The first year I worked there, I just volunteered as part of someone else's project. But, the second year, I decided to get more involved. I wasn't really interested in what was already being offered, so I decided to come up with a project of my own," Smith says.

"I have always loved animals and have an interest in older adults and wanted to combine the two in a volunteer project. I was aware of research involving stress relief and animal-assisted therapy and decided to investigate the possibility of leading a group of employees with their pets to local nursing homes. I chose three nursing homes from the 20 that were interested," Smith says. "When I asked Chase employees to join me, the response was overwhelming!

I had 20 people come with 20 pets on my first visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor. The two other nursing home trips each included five to 10 employees with their pets.

"The residents loved the animals, who were all very well behaved," Smith says. "The staff remarked at the change in demeanor, activity-level and the overall interest of many patients. Some patients, who rarely left their rooms, literally ran down the hall to see the pets as we walked in! Some residents who hadn't spoken in awhile chatted happily with the dogs and cats."

When her master's course work is finished, Smith will begin working on her thesis research. assessing the effect an established pet therapy program has had on everyone involved in the program--from patients to staff, to directors and caregivers. Her goal is to document the tangible changes pet-assisted therapy has made at every level.

Smith, who lives with her two cats, Lily and Chloe, says she would love to be able to make a living when she finishes school working with companion animals and the elderly and children. In the meantime, she helps pay the bills by playing piano for weddings and other events--she's been playing since she was 5--acting as a personal training instructor and fitness counselor, doing fitness modeling, producing health and nutrition seminars and, in her spare time, fostering abandoned cats and kittens.

--Barbara Garrison