Adventures in Animal-Assisted Memory Care

By Heather Hansen | Posted on 06.14.2017 | 0 comments
Adventures in Animal-Assisted Memory Care
This spring, I brought three kids home to live with me forever, and their names are Peekaboo, Oliver, and Popcorn.  

I’m talking about my Nigerian Dwarf goat kids, of course! They’re three fuzzy babies that I purchased from a friend’s hobby farm a few months back. I raised them on bottles of milk in my house for several weeks until they were old enough to graduate to an outdoor pen. Peekaboo, Oliver, and Popcorn can be playful, curious, loud, and occasionally demanding—not much different than human kids, from what I’ve heard.

It’s become common for small pets to visit elderly residents in nursing homes, and someday I hope to be able to do that with my dwarf goats. In the meantime, we go on little field trips, since the trio can fit easily into a dog kennel in the back seat of my car. We particularly enjoy spending time with my grandmother, a widow in her late 70s who lives in a small, rural town, and had a few goats herself when she was younger.

The first time I brought the goats to my grandmother’s, she brought her walker outside to the yard. Once she was seated, I placed the first goat in her lap for her to bottle feed him. Though he was only five pounds, Popcorn got a bit feisty, kicking and yelling for his bottle. Grandma’s reaction was hilarious: “You better help me, Heather!” I had to laugh, wondering how she’d raised seven children on a busy dairy farm if just one little goat was throwing her for a loop.

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Photo: Heather Hansen / CPI


Next, she held Peekaboo, a black and white goat. “Boy, this goat sure has some funny looking eyes!” my grandmother said, her brow furrowing as she held and pet him. I was about to explain that Peekaboo’s striking blue eyes were an anomaly next to his brothers’ brown ones, but then my grandmother asked, “Are they on top of his head!?”

Suddenly I realized what she meant, and burst out laughing, explaining that the Peekaboo had been disbudded.

We came back for another visit on Easter. I’d forgotten to call ahead to announce the kids were along, but she was delighted to see the goats again, and didn’t even mind bringing them into the kitchen (in their Easter outfits, of course) so that everyone could hold and share them. On Mother’s Day, I gave her the gift of “goat time” instead of flowers. Judging by the smile on her face, I think she appreciated seeing how fast her “great grand-goats” were growing.

Seeing how beneficial these visits were for my grandmother, I took the goats to the home of a friend’s mother-in-law who has been experiencing issues with memory loss. “Oma”, a German immigrant in her late 80s, sat on the porch of her Cream City brick farmhouse with her granddaughter, delicately feeding crackers to the goats. Her shock of snow white hair blew gently in the warm summer wind as Peekaboo stood on his hind legs, nibbling at the treat she offered him. Her hands were gnarled and a bit stiff from arthritis, so I scooped him up and gently laid him across her lap.

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Photo: Heather Hansen / CPI


The conversation I had with Oma sounded like a record skipping—she repeatedly asked how old they were, what their names were, and if there were more goats back at my house. At first, because I was trying to keep an eye on the goats and answer her at the same time, I thought perhaps she hadn’t heard my initial replies. Gradually I realized that her memory loss was impacting our conversation—but had zero impact on the quality of our visit. We spent over an hour outside, just watching the goats peacefully munch on grass, nap in the sunshine, and climb on her porch and picnic table.

Oma’s family was so impressed with how gentle the animals were with her, and with how much she enjoyed their company. We plan to visit again soon!

It amazes me how these tiny animals can bring out the smiles in everyone they meet. Pet therapy, or Animal Assisted Therapy, has demonstrated that people of all ages can benefit from positive interaction with animals. It actually makes you healthier—research is now beginning to associate the benefits of animal assisted therapy with positive clinical outcomes.

Animal Assisted Therapy can enhance mobility and cognitive function, even when dementia or memory loss are the diagnosis. The need for certain kinds of medication can be reduced by regular interaction with a therapy animal, and pet ownership by the elderly can significantly reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels as compared to those who don’t own or interact with pets. The presence of a companion animal can improve self-esteem and life satisfaction, and even decrease symptoms of loneliness and depression.

I’ve learned that I’m not alone in discovering this magical rapport between goats and grandparents. At The Pines nursing home in Machias, NY, Petey the goat became a regular visitor for just that reason. His owner, like me, noticed how petting and interacting with Petey inspired joy and well-being in others, and began bringing him to The Pines to spend time with residents. And at Azura Memory Care, based here in Wisconsin, residents spent several hours cuddling with new baby goats and reflecting on their own childhoods.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised at the reaction my elderly friends and family have when they meet, play with, and snuggle my “kids”.
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After all, these little creatures are just doing what they were born to do: spreading joy, promoting wellness, and climbing all over the furniture.

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Photo: Heather Hansen / CPI
 
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