One of the biggest problems with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is that people who get the disease often want to continue living alone in their own homes and have trouble admitting that they need help. Since around 5.5 million people over age 65 are estimated to be struggling with the disease (a number that is only growing), it’s important that we find a sustainable way to not only help dementia patients remain alive but also improve their quality of life.
Service dogs have been adapted in recent years to do more than just help the blind navigate busy city streets. They now help the hearing-impaired, those with mobility problems, people with mental health issues, and even those with diabetes who are prone to dangerous spikes and dips in blood sugar. And most recently, they’re being trained to help dementia patients cope with their disease.
Dogs and dementia patients are perfect companions right from the get-go. Both are creatures of habit, happiest when they have a sense of routine and normalcy. They’re also both in need of companionship. For an Alzheimer’s patient who lives alone, particularly if family members aren’t able to visit every day, a dog is the perfect friend. It’s also been shown that dementia patients who have something to care for (anything from chickens to baby dolls depending on the severity of the disease) have a better quality of life than those who don’t. A dog can reduce an Alzheimer’s patient’s feelings of helplessness and dependency (reducing the risk of depression) and even promote good exercise habits.
We know what you’re thinking. Let’s just get Grandpa a dog for a pet. We don’t need an actual service dog, right? Well, yes. But a service dog is trained to deal with dementia and the issues that come along with it, such as sudden mood swings and wandering. There are several benefits to having a trained service dog care for your loved one. It’s a big job, so make sure you get a dog who’s been equipped to handle it.
The most important job of an Alzheimer’s aid dog is to deter its owner from leaving the house unaccompanied, which prevents patients from getting lost and relieves some of their family’s worry about them wandering off.
If an Alzheimer’s patient does get lost while walking with a service dog, the simple command “home” will signal the dog to guide its master back home. For patients who are still capable of driving, an assistance dog could also help find the car when their owner forgets where it is parked.
Since it’s quite possible that an Alzheimer’s patient will forget this command over time, the dog’s collar is also there to help. A GPS tracking system lets the patient’s family know where the pair is at all times, and, in an emergency, a button can be pressed which causes the collar to emit a sound that acts as an alternative to the “home” command. The dog then knows to lead its owner to safety without having heard the actual word “home.”
In the event that the patient suffers a heart attack or has another health issue that leaves him or her immobile and in need of help, the dog is trained to stay with its master and bark to alert other people in the area to the problem. If at home, the dog can trigger an alarm system to let family members or emergency professionals know about the problem.
If the person with Alzheimer’s leaves the home without his or her dog, the dog can track its owner by scent.
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The list of services a trained dog can provide to its owner goes on and on. Different programs train their dogs to perform different functions, but some options include bringing their master’s pills, leading him or her to the restroom or another place where a loved one has left a permanent reminder note for the person with dementia (perhaps telling them to drink some water, bathe, eat, take their medication, etcetera). Timers or alarms can alert service dogs to do these “chores” at specific times of the day.
While most patients living with dementia will eventually need to be in a nursing home or have someone around all the time to keep an eye on them, service dogs allow them to be independent longer. It may also be possible in the future to have dogs in nursing homes to keep morale up and alert nurses of health emergencies (or even escapees, perhaps). Some assisted-living facilities already have dog handlers bring in therapy dogs to help with their patients’ mental health. Who’s to say this isn’t the next step?
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?