Robyn Taylor shares some of her favourite ideas for using pet therapy and bringing animals into the care home – from resident cats and hatching chicks, to dog shows, reptile visits and walking the dogs…
Have you heard of the saying ‘never work with animals’? I think this should be rephrased to say ‘always work with animals’! And if you have ever experienced the joy that a pet brings to people in care homes, you’ll agree. Heart-warming and inspiring.
Not many care homes have pets, and many elderly people have gone through life caring for animals, whether that be dogs, cats, budgies or rabbits. But when you are unable to look after an animal full-time and find yourself in care, maybe even having had to rehome a beloved furry companion, a lot of people say they miss their four-legged friends. Research says that pet therapy on a regular basis helps relieve stress, cope with mental health issues and encourage a sense of calm. It reduces anxiety, boredom and loneliness by providing companionship.
If you’ve never used animals in activities before, then Pets as Therapy – an organisation that bring therapy dogs into care homes – is a good place to start. This is a must for your activity calendar, bringing happiness and companionship with each visit. And, as an activity coordinator, it is extremely rewarding being able to help satisfy the emptiness felt from loneliness by organising animal therapy. Find out more.
And if you want to do more, here are a few things I have done over the years which have always created a sense of joy and a spark of delight…
A DOG SHOW
Set a date and make a poster asking for volunteers to bring in their dogs – it could be staff, friends and family, or community volunteers. Find out information about each dog that is going to be in the show and write a description for them, not forgetting to mention the owner. Send invites out and ensure you have enough staff to support the session – because you are hosting, you will need a team to ensure the safety of the residents as well as taking lots of photos.
Set the room or garden up with chairs either side of the dog walk. Organise a little waiting room for the volunteers and their dogs to wait in until it is their turn to walk up and down, strutting their stuff. Allow time for each resident to have a little bit of attention from the animals.
Before the dog show, if possible, take the residents into town to buy some dog treats and make little goody bags for them to take home, including treats, a tennis ball and a thank-you note.
Ask any staff members, relatives or volunteers if they would mind coming to visit with their dog for an hour or so. Take a simple walk around your garden, but this time with a dog on the lead. (Don’t forget to pick up the poo as the maintenance team will not be impressed!) You may also have local dog walking companies that would take a detour from their normal route and walk through your garden.
Some companies can come into the care home and bring an array of different species. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you may be surprised how initial hesitancy turns to curiosity and excitement, especially when people get to hold animals they never thought they would be brave enough to, overcoming a few fears in the process. The residents love it when staff members hold animals too – they like our reaction just as much as we like to see theirs. Find out more.
BIRDS OF PREY
This experience is great if you are having a summer fete, or you could simply invite your local schools to come along, or another local care home to visit and split the cost if needed. The company will bring the birds, along with plenty of interesting facts and get everyone involved. You also get the chance to hold a bird of prey. The men in my care home were always interested in this experience. Find out more.
Shetland ponies are always popular, especially for ftesor to visit the residents in their bedrooms. You might know someone with one, but if not, there are many farms or companies which will hire out their pony for a day. At our fte, we did pony rides and ‘washing the pony’ for a small fee towards the residents’ funds. The residents loved these visits as it was something different.
There is well-documented evidence that horse therapy can help heal people with physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges. EAT (Equine Assisted Therapy) is a great thing to look into if you want your work with animals to really support those residents with more challenges or those whose dementia is more advanced. We used to visit an Equine Therapy Centre in Lincolnshire, where I live, allowing residents to benefit from a peaceful, natural environment, surrounded by horses and wildlife. Over a period, the residents visited on a weekly basis and reaped the benefits of this experience. Find out more.
STAFF PET VISITS
This is a great option, because it doesn’t have to be an arranged activity. Residents love it if members of the team live locally and, on their days or evenings off, don’t mind popping in when walking the dog for 15 mins for a cup of tea. This could be a visit with any pet that they have, as long as they’re happy to do it. Remember that you and the care team spend most of the time with the residents, and as much as you learn about them, they also learn about you. They would love to meet the pets you talk about throughout the day.
GARDEN CENTRE VISITS
A lot of garden centres nowadays have aquariums to sell fish. This is a cheaper option than paying to visit a real aquarium. Enjoy a day out to the garden centre, visit the cafe and enjoy looking at all the different coloured fish in the tanks.
Many homes now have fish tanks. Some homes may purchase this from residents’ funds, donations, or out of their budgets, but you can also rent them out. Aqualease is a great company that provides tanks specially-designed for care homes. They install the tanks, the fish and give you advice and guidance throughout. When we had these fish in our home, it was a very tranquil experience for the residents, and it had a very calming effect for people who suffered from aggressive moments and anxiety. It was also great for routine, as each day the residents would feed the fish themselves.
For a while, in my care home, we had a budgie, supported by a fantastic team leader took control of this pet! We found when speaking to residents and learning about their life stories, that a large percentage of them would say their first pet was a budgie. It was nice for the care staff and residents to be involved with maintaining the cage, and the routine of upkeep and feeding. I would often walk into the lounge and find a gentleman sitting happily, whistling to the budgie.
CATS IN THE HOME
This is a subject for debate, of course. Should cats live in care homes? Obviously, some people are allergic, and some people are frightened of them, but if you feel it can work, it can be incredibly soothing for residents, and they are a very easy pet to keep. Many older cats – especially those from cat rehoming centres – are very well-behaved and would relish the opportunity to be loved and petted each day. If it’s something you think your residents would like, it’s worth looking into.
Sometimes care homes hire an incubator and get fertilised chicken or duck eggs to watch as the eggs hatch into little chicks or ducklings. In my care home, we had the incubator near the reception area and would bring residents to visit throughout the day, as well as any grandchildren visiting, who loved to keep an eye on the chicks. When the chicks are hatched you also get the opportunity to keep them if you wish. If you have space, having chickens in care homes is a great form of routine and reminiscence, as it connects so many to their memories of farming, and the daily collecting of eggs is always a special moment. Find out more.
Remember, pets are not for everyone, but I feel it is crucial to have regular visits from them to maintain a sense of normality, a feeling of compassion and excitement. As long as you have a dedicated area for it, and you are not enforcing it on everyone, why not give it a go? Make happy memories together that you will cherish.