Pet Therapy for Seniors: How Dogs Bring a Nursing Home to Life


Walking the halls of a nursing home in Atlanta, Georgia, are a few unlikely visitors. Lisa Hoefinger and her friend Kathy, volunteers, look like they could be visiting an aging grandparent, but walking by their sides are two decidedly furrier companions.

It’s this couple, Lacey and Kensy, who get all the attention. The whole team is from Happy Tails Pet Therapy and “happy tails” (and more than a few “tales,” too) are what they are here to share. More often than not, it’s the nursing home residents who do the talking; Lacey, a golden retriever, and Kensy, a mixed breed who is a cross between a chow, leonberger and retriever, (“and looks like a stuffed toy,” according to his owner) are quite the conversation-starters.

Jumping in to Pet Therapy, Paws First
When Hoefinger first volunteered she and Kensy for pet therapy, she didn’t imagine visiting nursing homes. “Most volunteers have thoughts of visiting preschools or hospitals to help patients with rehab,” Hoefinger says.

After her first visit, though, she was sold on the idea. “Each visit is different and brings joy not only to the residents, but to me and Kensy,” she says, explaining that Kensy was a shelter dog who was pulled off “death row” and now lives to give back to others.

Hoefinger shares one story, which is indicative of the impact pet therapy makes on nursing home residents. “One gentleman we visited was a Vietnam veteran whose infantry used war dogs. He told us how they would use the dogs to stand watch at night. If an enemy approached, the dog would alert them and then be unleashed to see him out. Dogs would also sniff out poisonous snakes hidden in fox holes and trenches. Sometimes a visit is just about listening and letting someone share their life stories with us.”

Hoefinger notes that not a visit goes by when one of the residents doesn’t personally thank her and Kensy. In addition to the social aspects of visiting with the volunteers, petting the dogs has proven benefits of stress reduction, anxiety reduction, and lowered blood pressure.

“If there is an activities director consider pet therapy, I would let them know what a huge difference it could make in the lives of their residents. Just make sure the visit doesn’t take place when the residents are eating or playing bingo. Other than that, the volunteers are trained and know to check to make sure someone wants a visit before entering their room,” Lisa says.

Residents are never forced to visit with the animals. “We knock on the door and see if the person would like a visit. If so, we go in. Some folks just say hi, we ask how their feeling and we let them pet the dogs. Other folks really want to talk. In those cases, we might stay 20 minutes or more. Sometimes we’re the only visitor a person has to look forward to,” Hoefinger says.

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