Special Visitors: How pets and children can make a difference in seniors’ lives.

Adele dresses up for every visit. She asks for assistance getting her gold-beaded necklace over her head and makes her way to the visitors room. She finds a seat in a quiet corner. Soon, the volunteers from the no-kill shelter arrive with dogs (seniors themselves) and, Adele’s favorites, kittens.

One of the volunteers knows that Adele won’t approach her to ask to hold a kitten so she scoops up a sleepy orange tabby and takes it to Adele, who holds it in her lap for the entire two hours of the visit. The kitten will occasionally wake and Adele will speak softly and gently caress it until it dozes again.

Adele with her dearest tabby

According to the National Center for Health Research, spending time with animals can significantly reduce anxiety and feelings of loneliness and isolation as well as lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels for people of all ages. For Adele, her twice a month visits with a kitten bring her out of her shell and improve her mood for days afterward.

At one end of the visitor spectrum are sleepy kittens and senior dogs. At the other end of the spectrum are sparkling preschoolers. On alternating weeks (the non-kitten and dog weeks), a local Montessori preschool brings three- and four-year olds to the visitors room. Adele doesn’t miss those days, either, but she still sits in her quiet corner. Two youngsters — Shelby and Collin — make a beeline to her with drawings they made. She marvels at both the drawings and the children’s outfits and the children ask her to come with them to look at the aviary.

Bright chatter fills the room and a discernable buzz or energy is felt. Seniors are moving about as the children lead them by the hand toward a table with tiny cups of grapes, the aviary or, if there is significant weather activity like rain or snow, toward the picture window. The seniors laugh at the children’s antics and the children laugh at some of the old-fashioned words the seniors use.

Time spent with young children can show results similar to a cardiac workout (such as a 15 minute walk) in seniors. Mood improvement is even more significant, with results lasting as long as a full week after a visit.

For senior housing like Adele’s, the activities have a minimum cost. The animal shelter brings the kittens and dogs as part of their community outreach. They receive a small national grant that supports the activity. The kittens receive gentle socialization that makes them more adoptable and the senior dogs get the sedate attention befitting their golden years. The Montessori school includes inter-generational interaction as part of their curriculum. The children become comfortable with older adults and their post-visit discussions allow the students to understand both the value they have in their community and the value people have throughout their lives.

For seniors like Adele, the visits are the highlight of every week. Other residents prefer bingo or crafts and seldom attend the pet or children visitations. But the loving interactions provided by gentle pets and lively, but well-behaved children are a perfect prescription for shy or introverted seniors like Adele. She finds her spot in the room and is not pushed beyond her personal social boundaries.

A wealth of resources can be found in every community and collaborative efforts with animal shelters and preschools can improve the physical, emotional and mental health of everyone (and every animal) involved.

The CarexTech and the SMILE Program teams are passionate about making a difference in the lives of our seniors. Our research supports programs such as inter-generational activities and pet visits to make a positive impact on to seniors’ minds, bodies and spirits.

Contact us at smile@carextech.com for a novel approach to manage, measure and improve your activity programs.

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