From greyhounds to boa constrictors, a menagerie of creatures is now finding its way into RMBI care homes. Sarah Holmes discovers the therapeutic effects that animals can have on those in need
Bella the greyhound is proving popular at Cadogan Court in Exeter as she meanders through the crowds at the annual summer fete. With her hazelnut fur and her pink tongue lolling lazily out of the side of her mouth, she’s a big hit with the residents.
‘She loves it,’ laughs owner Sue Bescinizza. ‘She could stand here for hours being stroked.’
Meanwhile, across the grounds, Elsie and Walter Nicholls watch in delight as Audrey the schnauzer leaps enthusiastically around their bench. The couple have been living in Cadogan Court for nine months, and are ardent dog lovers. ‘I’m so glad they bring the animals into the home,’ says Elsie. ‘It brings back all the memories of our own pets.’
With more than a million older people suffering from loneliness in the UK, visits from animals such as Bella and Audrey are vital in tackling the effects of social isolation. This is particularly true for people in residential care homes, where there often aren’t the facilities – or the manpower – to look after pets.
‘Pets bring a sense of comfort and well-being, so we encourage many different animals into our homes,’ says Debra Keeling, Deputy Director of Care Operations at the RMBI. ‘We want residents to enjoy the benefits animals provide, even if they don’t have their own pets.’
At Cadogan Court, an RMBI care home that looks after older masons and their families, residents like Elsie and Walter get to see Bella every week. Just one of 4,500 dogs registered with the charity Pets As Therapy (PAT), Bella regularly visits hospitals, special-needs schools and care homes around her local area to provide therapeutic comfort and companionship to the residents. Her docile nature makes her the perfect candidate for the charity.
‘She’s always a welcome guest,’ says Helen Mitchell, Manager at Cadogan Court. ‘The residents’ faces light up when she walks through the door.’ With nearly half of residents aged over 65 relying primarily on their TVs for company, Bella’s visits give them a chance to engage in something a little different.
‘The best thing about the PAT visits is that everyone can get involved,’ says Helen. ‘If a resident is immobile, we’ll take Bella to their bedside so they can reach out to stroke her.’
For residents who are battling with dementia, Bella has proven to be a particularly calming influence. ‘A lot of our nursing residents had pets before moving in, and they have fond memories attached to dogs. It’s a good way of helping them to remember. Sometimes, I think they remember the animals better than the people.’
‘I’ll always remember when Echo the Eurasian eagle owl tried to take off right here in the living room.’ Norman Wilkins
Creating a sanctuary
But it’s not just domestic animals that visit. The home has established links with animal sanctuaries throughout Devon, so that every year donkeys, ponies and even owls come to see the residents.
‘I’ll always remember when Echo the Eurasian eagle owl fanned out its wings and tried to take off right here in the living room,’ remembers Norman Wilkins, a resident at Cadogan Court, with delight. ‘It created this incredible draft of air that pushed down on us like a gale. I’ve never felt anything like it before.’
In an effort to broaden the animal activities, Helen also got a local pet shop to showcase its collection of exotic snakes, lizards and tarantulas. ‘It’s not every day you see a three-foot-long lizard running loose in the living room,’ laughs Helen. She brought her own boa constrictor along for the visit. ‘Luckily, she was a lot smaller then, only about four-and-a-half foot,’ she says. ‘She’s double that size now.’
Despite some initial apprehension, it wasn’t long before many of the residents let the boa constrictor hang around their necks, and fork through their fingers with its head. ‘They were all asking for photographs to send home to their sons and daughters to prove they’d actually held a snake,’ remembers Helen. ‘The energy and excitement of the day really brought people out of their shells.’
Taking the idea one step further, staff at Prince Edward Duke of Kent Court in Essex decided to introduce a live-in dog to the home to bring the community together and give residents a renewed sense of purpose from having to walk and feed her.
Named Meg, the black labrador was originally owned by a gentleman who refused to move into the home unless she could come with him. ‘Life changed the moment she arrived,’ explains Audrey Brown, Activities Coordinator at the RMBI care home. ‘The whole place felt more homely.’
‘A lot of residents had pets before moving in, and have fond memories attached to dogs. Sometimes, I think they remember the animals better than the people.’ Helen Mitchell
A positive presence
While PAT visits have always been a key form of therapy in the care home, Meg’s constant presence allows her to build up relationships with the residents and become attuned to their particular behaviours. If Meg senses that a resident is feeling down, for example, she’ll seek them out to sit by them or lie on their bed.
For Kathleen, who lives in Mauchline House, the home’s dementia support house, companionship has proved particularly beneficial. ‘I think simply stroking Meg’s head is very calming for Kathleen, as it gives her something to think about other than herself and her condition,’ says Audrey. ‘Meg is one of the few companions who won’t force herself on you. She won’t insist you get up to take your medication, or expect you to make conversation.
In dementia, your relationship with others can become difficult, but with Meg it’s a simple bond.’
The home has now been given Butterfly Service Status – a nationally recognised award that identifies care homes that deliver an exceptional standard of support for their residents living with dementia. Meg is another example of the way in which the RMBI provides individualised care for its residents. ‘Care homes are constantly changing, and what works changes with it,’ says Audrey. ‘But for us, Meg has been a seamless fit. It’s like having another member of staff.’
One in eight older people rely on their animals as a source of companionship, but it seems dog owners are the ones reaping most benefits. Not only do four-legged friends keep people 12 per cent more active than those who don’t own pets, they also raise our self-esteem and make us more conscientious and extroverted, as well as less fearful, according to the American Psychological Association.
Bella the greyhound passed away shortly before publication. Cadogan Court would like to thank her owner for all the happiness Bella brought to residents