Dogs and Dementia: How Canine Companions Are Helping Seniors With Sundowners Syndrome

Happy Senior Man And His Dog

There has been a great deal of research on the way in which pets, particularly dogs can impact the lives of seniors today. Pets can help prevent loneliness, encourage seniors to get exercise and even help seniors fight off depression. However, there is one very specific way in which dogs are helping seniors who battle dementia and mores specifically Sundowners Syndrome.

When seniors have a canine companion in their lives they are able to have constant love, support and companionship from their pets. This can really go a long way in helping seniors feel loved and appreciated as they deal with the devastating effects of dementia. Since dogs need to be on a specific schedule with eating, exercising and going to the bathroom, many seniors with dementia also find that the constant mental stimulation that pets provide can really go a long way in improving their dementia symptoms.

Many studies have found that routines and responsibilities can keep the mind sharp and keep dementia patients focused. It can also help them remember more of their own daily routine, when they have the constant reminder of an animal to keep their day structured. This type of structure and the need for care can also provide seniors with the mental stimulation that they need in order to keep their brains sharp and functioning. While stimulation such as this won’t cure dementia or prevent it from worsening, it can slow down the progression of the disease significantly.

The non-verbal communication that dogs provide can also really help those that experience Sundowners Syndrome. Sundowning occurs when seniors with dementia get confused or agitated at night, so much so that they can enter a state of complete confusion and even do harm to themselves. These episodes can also make it very difficult for seniors with dementia to sleep. The structured schedule that dogs provide can help many dementia patients with Sundowners Syndrome, as can the tactile stimulation of interacting with pets.

Many times, the non-verbal communication and acceptance that dogs offer can soothe those with Sundowners Syndrome, especially when they are struggling to communicate verbally about their own agitations. One of the biggest challenges that Alzheimer’s and dementia patients tend to have has to do with acceptance and understanding. The presence of non-judgmental support systems such as dogs can provide dementia patients with that support that they seek. Some individuals are simply comforted by the presence of an animal when they become agitated, while others find the art of petting an animal or walking a calm dog can provide them with a soothing activity that can calm their nerves and help them refocus their energy in a more positive way.

Pet therapy has long been a common practice for seniors as well as children, the seriously ill, mentally disabled and physically challenged individuals. However, for those seniors who are particularly struggling with dementia and Sundowners, the presence of a furry friend may help them have the support and the structure they need to get through these difficult spells.

3 Innovative Therapy Options for Individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia

With increases in the numbers of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, substantial research has been done recently to try and find new and promising ways to manage and treat these conditions. While much of the research in the past has centered around using prescription drugs and natural supplements, there are a number of emerging therapies that are proving successful at helping individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Pet Therapy

Pet therapy, also referred to as animal therapy, has found traction for individuals dealing with a wide range of medical conditions including diabetes, PTSD, and anxiety. However, pet therapy also has been found to have a number of significant benefits for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, both in terms of helping with interaction and helping patients to manage the day-to-day effects of their conditions.

For example, trained and certified service dogs can help individuals make their way through their daily routines and use their sense of smell to guide people to important locations if the person has trouble remembering where they are going or how to get there. Additionally, these animals provide invaluable companionship to individuals who may have trouble maintaining relationships with other humans.

Research has shown that Alzheimer’s and dementia patients frequently interact and bond with animals in a way that they no longer do with people, and display increased levels of interaction with these caring creatures. Whether a person has a permanent service dog or they simply have regular visits from a volunteer dog, interacting with animals can have significant benefits on those living with dementia.

Art Therapy

Art therapy provides individuals dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease with an outlet for expressing their thoughts and emotions when their words might fail them. Individuals living with dementia can experience significant frustration and resulting isolation from being unable to effectively communicate with others due to their memory loss.

Because it doesn’t rely on verbal communication to allow deep and meaningful expression, many dementia and Alzheimer’s patients are able to experience significant improvements to their mood and emotional health after expressing themselves through activities like drawing and painting. Even when words fail a patient, they are still able to effectively communicate their feelings, fears, and hopes, alleviating the frustration that often comes from being unable to articulate these thoughts and emotions.

Music Therapy

Listening to and interacting with music has a number of significant benefits for patients with dementia. Numerous studies have shown that even the passive act of listening to music can help to stimulate brain activity. However, music can also help individuals with memory loss to recall certain activities, actions, or memories. This can be effective when trying to help a patient recall an earlier memory or experience, and it can also be extremely useful when trying to help individuals build new responses or patterns of behavior.

Therapists can match a specific song or type of music to a specific activity and then repeat that music later when they want an individual to repeat the learned behavior or response. Even once a patient has entered the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, music can still be used to elicit certain responses from an individual, as patients do not require cognitive processing in order to do things like enjoy/appreciate music, sing, or play a specific rhythm.