Pet Therapy presentation kicks off spring series of Optimal Aging Institute

Pet-Therapy-web

The companionship of animals can play an important role in “optimal aging,” as the first session in BGSU’s Optimal Aging Institute spring program series demonstrated. The Feb. 23 gathering was part research presentation, part demonstration and all pleasure for attendees from the University, community and Brookdale Senior Living in Bowling Green.

Providing firsthand proof of the power of pets as “social lubricants” were Snowy the cat, belonging to Dr. Cynthia Spitler, gerontology; Sophie and Brodie, the sister and brother Shetland sheep dogs of Dr. Christopher Dunn, criminal justice, and retiree Susan Dunn, formerly of University Advancement; Frederick the Shih Tzu, a therapy dog who works with Marie Rogers of Bowling Green, and Reba the Labrador retriever, a fully trained assistance dog who aids community member Sandy Sundmeier, who is in a wheelchair.

The animals received a warm welcome and treats from the audience, sparking conversation and praise. Snowy, a remarkably outgoing former shelter cat who now serves as a therapy pet, walked about and greeted everyone, including the dogs; Brookdale residents Roy Hayes and Colleen Dunn held the Shelties on their laps, and everyone admired all the animal visitors. Rogers told about her work with Bowling Green resident Bryce Christensen, brain damaged as the result of a near-drowning as a child. Now 23, he has had pet therapy with Rogers since he was 13.

Spitler, who takes Snowy to senior living centers, gave historical background on the salutary effect of animals, first mentioned by Florence Nightingale. It was later researched beginning in 1961 by psychologist Dr. Boris Levenson of Yeshiva University, who coined the phrase “pet therapy” (which he later revised to “animal-assisted therapy”) and was the first to scientifically document its impact on a variety of people in different settings and with different needs. In the elderly, contact with animals has been found to motivate people to be more self-reliant and active, Spitler said. Likewise, for those who experience sensory deprivation, the touch of an animal is therapeutic and can fill in some of the gaps left by loss of other senses. Animals can also reduce aggressive behavior in people with forms of dementia and provide comfort to people in prison and children with anxiety, depression or who are grieving. They improve morale of both residents and staff in institutional settings.

“They enhance social and emotional well-being,” Spitler said.

Gerontology majors Kassidy Roe, a sophomore from Dundee, Mich., and Bethany Sara, a junior from Parma, Ohio, shared the results of their study of animal assisted therapy for the research methods class they take with Christopher Dunn. A faculty member in criminology, he had become interested in pet therapy after he and his wife began visiting friends in Brookdale with their dogs, who are not certified therapy dogs but are naturally very gentle and friendly. Roe and Sara took Brodie and Sophie to three area residential facilities, including a group home for people with developmental disabilities, and studied the effect the dogs had on residents.

 “In the memory care home, seeing the dogs would sometimes cause people to recall a dog they had had,” Roe said. “One person remembered a golden retriever and another talked about her Dachshund. That was great to see.”

“People would get very happy when they saw the dogs,” Sara said.

Sundmeier, who swims at the Recreation Center most days, explained how Reba helps her in her daily life, which Reba demonstrated by picking up a variety of items and giving them back to her.

The rest of the OAI Spring Program schedule includes:

  • Preventing Osteoporosis through Exercise, on March 2.
  • Ukulele for Beginners, on March 22 and March 29
  • Images of the Great Depression in America, on April 6
  • Care Compass Project: Personal Care Training for Caregivers/Legal Services.

Sessions are held in various locations around Bowling Green. Check the website for full details.