When I first met George it had been a long time since he had proper hugs from someone. It’s hard to put your arms around someone who is too frail to sit upright in their chair, or to stand unaided. Even though George was living with his partner, and had carers visiting each day to help him get washed and dressed in the morning, he was in many ways quite separate from the rest of the world, spending most of each day in an armchair looking out of the window.
Human beings need touch. Indeed, there is much research on the negative impact of too little loving touch for babies and infants on their childhood development. Furthermore, the power of touch is evidenced to help with pain, anxiety, sleep and depressive-like symptoms in adults.
The lack of this human touch can leave people feeling deeply lonely and unloved, and sadly, it is the elderly population that are most likely to be starved of touch. One positive response to this, are ‘therapeutic touch’ massage courses for people living with dementia (e.g from Massage for Dementia https://massagefordementia.co.uk).
But not all cuddles need to come from humans! George absolutely loved dogs. He'd had three Labradors over the years, and their portraits were displayed in many photographs along the windowsill by his armchair for him to look at every day. When I took an interest in these photos, George's face lit up and he immediately told me his beloved pets' names. It didn't take too long to find local dog owners who wanted to volunteer by visiting an elderly person in their home with their pet. And it's not often I get to interview canines along with humans! But the matching process is important. Firstly, I needed to ensure that the dog was small and light enough to fit on George's lap, as he was too stiff and frail to lean over from his armchair and pet an animal at his feet - plus it's a much more immersive, cuddly experience when there is close contact! Secondly, it was important that the dog was calm; accepting the petting of anyone who showed their love, without too much excitement.
For owners that feel their dog would be perfect for this kind of activity, there is a course on which the right skills can be learnt and to achieve registration of their pet as a PAT (Pets as Therapy) dog. https://petsastherapy.org/ For Plan with Care this kind of rigour of having a certification from an independent specialist organisation is enormously helpful, reassuring us that all dogs we take into a vulnerable person’s home have passed their social care training course with flying colours!
However, it doesn't always have to be that formal. If you think that your loved one would benefit from a general doggy fix and would be comfortable with any kind of pooch, try investigating a company called Borrow my Doggy, https://www.borrowmydoggy.com/ who provide a platform for connecting local dog owners with local dog lovers. This works wonderfully as a mutually rewarding experience. Whilst the human enjoys the company of their new canine companion, the dogs get love, extra attention and essentially more exercise if taken for a wander round the block.
George soon had two new visitors each month. The dog would sit quietly on George's lap for 45 minutes, thoroughly enjoying a lot of extra fuss. Meanwhile their owner sat chatting with George's partner, who was in her own way lonely and in need of some social TLC. It was a win-win for everyone.
The impacts of this 'pet therapy' were quite extraordinary. Not only did not George's mood improve on the day the dog visited (and for several days afterwards), his cognition also seemed to improve. Due to his dementia, George was usually unable to recall most of what had just hours before, let alone days. Yet when Holly, his Creative Companion, came to visit a couple of days after the last dog session, he recounted the event with great excitement, no memory problems whatsoever!
Perhaps simply reintroducing dogs into George’s life meant that he had something special to look forward to, and back on; a memory worth making as opposed to an endless blur of days sat staring out the window doing nothing. And perhaps, as the science suggests, the non-pharmacological intervention of loving touch can have all sorts of benefits to the human brain, that a pill cannot. Ultimately, George's psychological needs for attachment (bond forming) and occupation (a sense of purpose, something to get up in the morning for), were now much better fulfilled, with a new stream of smiling dog photographs being added to the windowsill for George to look at!