When my mother, Beverly Swett, moved into her new studio apartment at the memory care facility, she could have brought along her cat, Ana. Ana was a half-grown kitten when my sister Mary brought her home from the local shelter earlier this year. It was love at first sight for all three of them. Mary had taken a leave of absence from her out-of-state job and was living with my mother for a few months while our family tried to figure out what next. You see, my mother has Alzheimer’s disease and home was becoming a risky place for her to live.
When Mary had to go, she wanted to take that little kitty home with her so badly it made her heart ache, but she decided Mom’s heart might break in two. After she left, my other sisters and I took turns staying with Mom and Ana who would play into the wee hours of the morning with anything that moved, toes especially. It didn’t take long for all of us to fall under her spell. She has the most beautiful face and softest fur and fluffiest tail. She’s mischievous, but cautious, shy, but loving. She will sprint across the room and leap up onto the table in front of the window to torment the squirrels at the birdfeeder; play at length with her catnip mice; bolt into hiding at the sound of a stranger; peek her head around a corner and suddenly leap onto your lap, where she’ll melt like butter and purr. Purr like a well-designed, high-performance engine.
It was my mother who decided Ana should stay home when she moved into her new apartment. She may have Alzheimer’s, but she is still quite present in the moment and able to think many things through rationally and thoughtfully. We all agreed with her decision because although a cat is allowed, it has to be declawed, must stay in the apartment at all times, and the tenant (or family) is totally responsible for meals and litter boxes.
My mother and Ana were separated after less than a year of living together. Many other people in her situation have had their beloved pets for many years. You might think, “What does that matter because people with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia probably wouldn’t even remember they had a pet?” Not necessarily true. Memories may fade, but the emotions attached to those memories often don’t, and the emotional relationships we have with our pets can run a lot deeper than the ones we have with our own family members.
A growing number of nursing homes, assisted living and memory care facilities allow residents to bring small pets, have frequent pet visitors and/or integrate pet therapy into their care programs. Research shows that when people with dementia interact with a therapy dog, it can reduce agitation, improve mood, and lessen challenging or difficult behaviors that are often associated with dementia.
Researchers have also been studying the effects of animal-like robots on dementia patients. You read that right robots. Apparently, the results have been promising, but not yet totally convincing. PARO, for instance, is a soft and fluffy robot seal that has sensors and responds to touch, light, sound, temperature and posture. It was invented by a Japanese engineer who wanted to provide animal therapy without the downside of real animals. Another example, the AIBO robot dog was created by Sony and equipped with touch sensors, voice and face recognition. It can also supposedly learn from its environment and express emotion. If you think a metallic robot puppy would make a great addition to your family, unfortunately, Sony does not make AIBO anymore, although I did find one on Amazon for $9,999.98!
I don’t think we’ll need to rush out and find my mother a robot pet. She has adjusted quite well to life without Ana and pets are frequent visitors at her new home. Something that says a lot about my mother’s character is that her greatest concern is Ana’s welfare. She is certain the cat would never be happy living with her and is delighted that Mary is here and when she leaves, she’ll be taking the much-loved Ana to her new home.
Diane Atwood writes the blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood, which received a Gold Lamplighter Award from the New England Society for Healthcare Communications and a Golden Arrow Award from the Maine Public Relations Council. Find it at catchinghealth.com.