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Social care's best friend?
For many years, the use of Guide dogs for the visually-impaired has been widespread. But perhaps for all these years we've been underestimating the bond between humans and animals. Recent research shows that animals of all kinds may be the answer to whatever ails you, and may be a vital intervention in social work and social care.
insideCare issue 2, Nov 2012
Besides the conventional guide dog, support or service dogs are now used as are ‘hearing' dogs. They can alert the hearing-impaired to the sound of an alarm, a telephone, a doorbell or an unexpected voice. Those with epilepsy can have a specially-trained dog which will alert them to the possibility of a seizure. Some dogs detect the changes in body scent that occur in diabetic people who are becoming hypoglaecemic. Some can be trained to detect cancer.
Dogs for the physically disabled can be trained to open doors, pick up groceries in a supermarket, and press access buttons to allow a wheelchair user to enter a shop. And dogs can play a major role in the lives of young autistic children, by helping them to feel reassured in social situations. Some voluntary organisations, like Dog Aid, can even help train the family pet to undertake many essential tasks for a disabled child or adult.
But of course, it's not only dogs. Riding for the Disabled has long been a part of the UK scene, and is a tremendous support system for children with cerebral palsy or lower limb disabilities, helping not only with companionship – horses love humans as much as dogs do – but also with strengthening limbs.
Animals are particularly effective in helping elderly people with heart problems or Alzheimer's. Stroking an animal reduces blood pressure instantly, and in Alzheimer's, since the sense of touch always remains, has been found to ease depression, aggression, and to aid concentration. Pets as Therapy is one organisation which uses volunteers and their very placid pets, either dogs or cats, to regularly visit the elderly and sick, in hospital, in residential care, or in special schools.
But pets like this are also used in sheltered housing care. Forging a bond with an animal for the first time can be a life-changing experience. One such resident, John, a man who could become easily agitated, was at first terrified of the gentle dog that was brought to visit the home he shared. But within a month of that first visit, he was taking the dog for walks, with the trainer, and had begun talking to other dog-walkers. This gave him the confidence to socialise in his new community.
The most effective use of animal therapy, however, is with mental health patients. It's widely researched as effective in anxiety, depression, and aggression. In Scotland, one NHS psychiatric unit, The State Hospital, admits 240 people with schizophrenia, and violent offenders or those at danger of offending. There's a huge range of animals to care for. Building up mutual trust between animal and patient, the staff say, is one of the most therapeutic aspects of this particular form of animal-assistive care.
Perhaps NHS facilities and some care homes which tend to impose restrictions on animals could think again? And perhaps social workers in the learning disabled, mental health, autism, and dementia fields, could consider introducing pets to the people they support.
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