Ask St. Ann’s – How Does Pet Therapy Benefit Healthy Aging?

By Mark Simpelaar and Tracy Tambe

Wagging tails. Wet noses. Warm cuddles. Spending time with a friendly pet is a sure-fire way to receive a daily dose of unconditional love, connection and companionship. Best of all, this mutually beneficial relationship supports healthy aging.

Often referred to as the “pet effect,” the bond between humans and animals calms our minds and lifts our spirits. It promotes the release of endorphins to help reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and increases positivity and socialization. Scientific research suggests that our interactions can reduce one’s blood pressure, improve overall cardiovascular health and alleviate pain.

As the healthcare community continues to shift toward a person-centered delivery model, involving animals in the therapeutic and social care of people is an essential strategy. An animal’s presence can improve the relationship and communication between patients and the healthcare provider to support the best outcomes.

The recognized forms of pet therapy are:

• Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), more commonly referred to as pet therapy, provides formal and structured interactions with a healthcare professional, a trained animal and the animal’s handler to help an individual reach a specific healthcare treatment goal.

• Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) are casual meetings where an animal and its handler interact with one or more people for comfort or recreation. Senior living communities often welcome families and friends to bring their cats, dogs and other pets for visits, as well as invite them to participate in pet shows for their residents.

Cats, cockatiels, doves, guinea pigs and rabbits are a few of the resident pets at St. Ann’s Community. Members of the Life Enrichment team care for the pets and facilitate interactions with residents as part of their care plans. The positive mood shifts and increase in energy and joy displayed by the residents are palpable.

In addition to pet visits, more facilities welcome pets to live alongside their owners in long-term care settings to support their overall well-being.

Two senior felines, Lily and Mollie, recently moved to the second floor of St. Ann’s Home to help a new resident adjust to his sudden need for skilled nursing care. Floor staff rallied to establish a care plan to accommodate the resident’s cat as well as adopt a second cat — bringing comfort and companionship to everyone living and working on the second floor.

Bringing your pet along when you visit a loved one in a healthcare facility is a great way to brighten everyone’s day. Before your first visit, be sure to ask about the protocol you should follow to keep everyone safe and healthy. Typically, senior living communities ask for signed documentation from your veterinarian stating that your pet has up-to-date vaccinations, is in good health, and has a good temperament.

Mark Simpelaar is a recreational therapist and life enrichment advocate at St. Ann’s Community. Contact him at [email protected] or 585-697-6498.

Tracy Tambe is a nurse manager at St. Ann’s Community. Contact her at [email protected] or 585-697-6098. Learn more about St. Ann’s Community in Rochester at

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