Sit, stay, heal: Paws-on therapy for long-term care residents

At Toronto’s Rekai Centre, long-term care residents receive comfort and companionship from dogs, cats and birds

At the Rekai Centre at Wellesley Central Place, a long-term care home in downtown Toronto, you might be surprised to see residents in wheelchairs and scooters stopping to pick up one of the pampered house cats and give it a free ride down the hallways. Therapy dogs are often hanging out with people in their rooms, too, and the library is filled with birdsong thanks to a twittering flock of zebra finches.

Both research and anecdotal reports suggest that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can reduce isolation and increase socialization for seniors living in long-term care facilities or nursing homes—particularly for those who have had pets in the past. One study found that while visiting with animals, residents often spontaneously began to talk to the animal about memories they have of their own pets.

It was the cats who came to the Rekai Centre first. Ten years ago, the Residents Council, an elected body of residents, decided animal companions would make the facility a better place to live. “Our Life Enrichment manager went to the Toronto Humane Society and picked up two cats that were calm in temperament,” says Barbara Michalik, Director of Community Partnerships, Programs and Volunteer Services. It’s a decision that has made a world of difference to the residents ever since.

“When our residents see our animals, they laugh and smile.”

Pinky and Clover, the live-in cats, reside on the third and fourth floors of the building, so residents can pet, feed and bond with their furry housemates whenever they like. Pinky typically hangs out in the third-floor office, lounging on a desk, purring when the staff give him love and attention. “When I worked on the floor, he would always come into the office in the evenings and lie on the computer so I would have to pet him,” says Kayla Johnston, Manager of Programs and Volunteer Services.

Clover, the fourth-floor feline, has a penchant for hitching a free ride down the halls on rolling carts and residents’ walkers.

Ray Thompson also lives on on the fourth floor. If you’re looking for Clover, chances are, she’s with him. “She spends most of her time here in my room or out in the hall, where she can get petted by people walking past,” says Thompson.

Rekai staff asked Thompson to help look after Clover years ago, and this helped create a bond between him and the cat. Studies also suggest AAT has the ability to distract from pain, and when Thompson is petting Clover, staff report that he becomes visibly less bothered by the symptoms he experiences from Lyme disease.

“I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight,” says Thompson, “but she knew who was going to feed her and change her box, so I was really popular with her right off the bat.”

For those who aren’t cat people, the Rekai Centre has been providing weekly visits with volunteer therapy dogs from St. John’s Ambulance for several years. During their visits they go room to room and visit individuals who enjoy dogs, which is indicated by paper paw prints stuck next to their doors. The dogs are calm and sweet, and they love to be petted; some will even get into bed with residents who are bedbound for a little snuggle.

The centre’s birds, donated by a resident’s family member (who also built the glass case), lets residents with reduced cognitive function enjoy some animal company as well. Caregivers and relatives will bring their loved ones downstairs to sit near the birds and be soothed.

Although research exists supporting the benefits of animal companionship, seeing it in person is all the proof you need. Staff agree that residents being able to interact with the animals on a daily basis makes life at the Rekai Centre better—no study required.

“When our residents see our animals, they laugh and smile,” says Michalik. “It creates a home-like environment and it brings the residents comfort and joy.”

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