Working in a hospital for twenty eight years provided me with insights on what happens when we get old and are institutionalized. Something that has made a world of difference to those living in hospitals and institutions has been pet therapy. Pet therapy’s primary goal is to provide social and sensory stimulation for the elderly and for the sick; a visit from a companion animal provide opportunities for recollecting, reviewing and discussions of losses.
Aging is not exclusive to the aged. It is a long-term process that begins, some people say, at the beginning of the life cycle itself. It’s said that we spend one quarter of our life growing up and three quarters of life growing old.
Aging in our culture is often perceived as a series of losses: whether it is strength, health, independence, sensory acuity, financial security may all decline. Our social losses add to this experience. Spouses of the elderly may go into institutions or take up residence in age- segregated housing. Eventually friends of older people start to die.
Younger family members may have moved away or, at the very least, have established separate lives and homes of their own. What old age does is to intensify and concentrate the losses and declines which have often been in process for years and decades.
Institutionalization for people over 65 years of age is mainly due to people’s physical and cognitive impairment.
Mobility, social contacts, touch, and other forms of sensory stimulation may all be reduced as a result of institutional life. The losses that elderly people have experienced contribute the shape to their dialogue, their bodies, and the attitudes they bring to bear on the social activities given to them in nursing homes.
Companion-animal visits produce a range of different responses from people. Those who choose to relate to the pets and volunteers develop an expectation or desire for ongoing contacts with the same individuals and animals.
In the course of visits, conversations, and the growing relationships between regular volunteers and residents bring up a vast gamut of topics and concerns. In many cases the pets who have served to bring people together fade into the background after several sessions, and residents relate to the staff and visitors who accompany the animals.
Issues raised are around the weather, recent holidays, into more personal ones such as family relations, medical problems as well as the forbidden topics of religious beliefs and politics.
They also often choose to talk during the sessions about the bonds and losses they have experienced with humans and animals. Pet visits conjure up memories from childhood and other life stages that contribute to the integrative process of recalling for the elderly.
Stories centering on animals often identity key features of people’s biological families, the quality of their marriages and of the ties to their children, their histories are laced with stories of how pets have entered into their lives. One visit with a dog can do all this, amazing! Better than any medicine you could give a sad or lonely person.
Since such recalling has been shown to be an important means for older people to create a profound account of their lives, companion –animal sessions encourages in the pleasure of this task. Pets are symbolic of the more complete domestic experience that residents once enjoyed.
Many seniors regard their former pets as having been “members of the family”. They seek out and emphasize the physical resemblances between visiting animals and the pets they once had to give up, as well as with the family members currently caring for them. Sessions also provide opportunities for people to praise, criticize, and explore other domestic ties. They draw connections between human loss and pet loss; through these connections they commonly confront issues of death and morality.
Seniors take pride in and sometimes take credit for the long lives of animals they have owned. In recalling pets from the past, at the very beginning of conversations, some patients discuss the circumstance of their animal’s deaths. Facts detailing their relationships usually follow. They also discuss deaths and the burials in considerable detail.
Details that are precise, graphic and emotional are not forgotten when explaining animal losses that occurred several decades before. My mother who passed away could in conversations remember names and situations 50 years back. She could remember her first dog and my first dog. This may not seem surprising, except for the fact that she suffered from memory loss and hardly spoke.
Discussions of these experiences with pets enable certain individuals to share their own grief or their fears of human loss. Some people emphasize the finality of certain types of attachment and loss. Describing a relationship with a particular animal with which they were extremely close, and after whose death they were unable to take on another pet.
Deceased pets are also remembered and spoken of as sources of moral value. They are praised for giving and eliciting love, for demonstrating loyalty and trust for teaching people how to care and be kind and for offering opportunities to engage in life in a positive way.
Companion animal visits offer seniors opportunities for conversation, sensory stimulation, tactile warmth, and ongoing relationships with others , the effectiveness of these visits derives in part from the symbolic meanings and the fears, hopes, values and identities that people project onto pet animals in our culture . Such reminiscences are a vital part of people’s reconstruction of their personal histories.
Not to mention the feeling and great joy of passing through life again and sharing ones memories with others. When it’s my turn, I will have so many memories and stories to tell, I will also feel the pain again for my loss, the price of that great joy, is the pain I feel when now.
Dogs have fulfilled my life with purpose and meaning, who could ask for anything more.
This article is dedicated to Marie Therese Legare, my mom, who knew too well about being in an institution.