Therapy dogs helping the elderly feel less lonely this Christmas

By Amy Connaughton

For many people, Christmas is their favourite time of year. It’s a happy time spent with family, friends and loved ones. Sadly though, for many elderly people, Christmas can be a tough time to get through. Nearly a quarter of the elderly do not look forward to Christmas because of loneliness and fears that it will bring back bad memories, according to research carried out by Age UK in 2014.

The research suggested that the effects of loneliness increase during the winter months with a fifth of elderly people worried about not being able to go outdoors as much because of shorter, darker days and poor weather conditions. Age UK is the UK’s largest charity dedicated to helping everyone make the most of later life.

One charity that is making a positive impact on the lives of the elderly in Ireland, is Irish Therapy Dogs. Irish Therapy Dogs was founded in 2008 with the aim of using pet therapy to provide comfort and companionship to people in long-term or daily residential care.

Their mission is to provide physical, therapeutic and educational benefit to people, young and old, fit and frail, alert and impaired, in hospitals, nursing homes, day care centres, and schools.

Today, more than 270 ‘Volunteer Visiting Teams’ make weekly visits to day care centres across Ireland.

Owners and their dogs give one hour each week to visit their assigned care centre. Once there, they circulate amongst the residents allowing their dog to be cuddled, petted and played with.

Research has shown that canine companionship brings a number of health benefits, such as lower blood pressure, lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, as well as increased production of serotonin and dopamine.

Humans have a basic need to touch and a dog fulfils this need. Stroking, holding and fussing over a dog helps reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness. The companionship of a dog can help to calm and soothe us, ease anxiety and boost our mood.

“I get so much more out of it than I put in, it’s great. Ruby is amazing and she doesn’t even realise the joy she brings”

Irish Therapy Dogs visit care centres and enrich the lives of people there by interacting with them. The dogs do not need any specialised training, but it is important that they are friendly, gentle, confident, patient and at ease in any situation. They must enjoy human company and be happy to be petted and handled. The suitability of both the owner and dog, working as a team, is subject to a formal assessment process.

Orla Keogh, from Deansgrange in Dublin, has been volunteering for Irish Therapy Dogs for two years now. She visits Belmont Nursing Home for an hour a week with her dog, Ruby. Orla said: “I get so much more out of it than I put in, it’s great. Ruby is amazing and she doesn’t even realise the joy she brings.”

Orla described how visiting the residents has such a great impact on their day: “Basically, even residents that don’t respond or speak, get so happy when they see Ruby. There’s one who’s deaf and dumb and she hates everyone, but she is obsessed with Ruby and when she sees me coming with the dog her whole face lights up.”

Jane Connaughton who is the activities coordinator in Belmont Nursing Home sees first-hand the effects that the therapy dogs have on the residents. “The reaction the residents have is just great to see. Straight away when the dogs come in you can see their faces just light up and there’s a nice, happy buzz around the room.

“Loneliness with old people is such a common problem and it’s very sad. A lot of residents here don’t have much family or don’t see their family very often.

“Some of the residents love to pet the dogs and hold them but some of them are happy enough to just sit and watch everything that’s going on. Either way, everyone has a smile on their face and it’s really great.”

Peata is another Irish charity dedicated to helping people reap the benefits of therapy dogs. Peata is a voluntary association established in 1996. Every year, they do a Christmas Carol Service in Christ Church Cathedral where there is a blessing of the therapy dogs.

Jane said: “The residents really enjoy it. We sit right up at the front and there’s a part of the service where all of the therapy dogs go up to the altar to be blessed. The residents love seeing all the dogs right up close to them.

“After the service, there is tea and coffee and mince pies and a chance for the residents to mingle with all the dogs.”

Irish Therapy Dogs is a voluntary registered charity and is completely self-funded. Funds are raised by membership fees, donations, sponsorship, personal gifts and various fundraising events.

If you would like to become a volunteer you can get in touch with the charity at 01 2189302 or you can visit their website at www.irishtherapydogs.ie

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