Voluntary Therapy

by Katherine Beam

The definition of a volunteer, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is a “person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task”, however, that definition doesn’t quite do justice to the impact that the act of volunteering inevitably has on all of those involved.  Those who choose to volunteer, no matter the forum, are generally the type of people who gain a sense of reward by being generous with their time and abilities, and therefore the volunteer is as much a beneficiary of their benevolent act as is the recipient.  The difference that a volunteer can make in the lives of the recipients of this activity can be, and usually is, astounding.

Ultimately, volunteering is cathartic in its generosity, for both sides, and there is no shortage of avenues through which a person can donate their time and abilities in a philanthropic capacity.  The need for help is all around us, and, since ways to give back all around us as well, any person with the desire to contribute to the greater good in some way need only decide which cause means the most to them and how or where they may be of the most value to that cause.  Fortunately, our world is full of generous people who care, and, thanks to those people (and the internet, of course), finding other like-minded “do-gooders” is not a difficult undertaking.  Essentially, giving back is easy to do if you want to do it.

The purpose of this article is to highlight and explore a tremendously effective way in which a particularly relevant percentage of our society can be benefited via volunteerism, and that is the way in which the unfortunate members of our elderly population living with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other mental pathologies can be aided greatly through Animal Assisted Therapy (briefly known as AAT). Animal Assisted Therapy is one of the most interesting, rewarding, and exciting manifestations of volunteerism.  Everything from fish tanks being placed in an Alzheimer’s patient’s quarters to disabled persons having the opportunity to participate in equestrian activities, falls under the larger umbrella of this type of therapy. The first documented reports of utilizing animals in any part of a therapeutic regimen are from England’s York Retreat, which was an institution for the mentally disabled in the late 1700’s led by William Tuke, who was a man who sought to find progressively humane methods of treating the mentally ill.

He discovered, and subsequently scientifically documented, that the patients at the Retreat were benefited greatly simply by the presence of companion animals being allowed to be loose on the grounds of the facility, and that the interactions that the patients had with these animals had a distinct and direct correlation to their happiness and overall mental health.  To be clear, these interactions were not a cure for the disorders to which the residents succumbed, however, they did make an enormous difference in the patient’s abilities to live with and manage their conditions more harmoniously.

Happiness, it seemed, was tantamount to the successful management of these diseases, and it became quickly apparent that establishing and nurturing the human-animal bond was equally tantamount to achieving that goal of medicinal happiness.  Other similar institutions, both in Europe and in America, began to follow this trend, and the ensuing scientific discoveries on how utilizing the human-animal bond as a means of counteracting mental illness has been deeply explored and widely accepted ever since.  Animal Assisted Therapy is now utilized in hospitals, rehabilitation clinics, nursing homes, intensive care units, and assisted living facilities around the world with overwhelmingly positive results.

The most recent estimation of people age 65 and over in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is a staggering 47.8 million, and with the baby boomers aging, that number is expected to almost double by the year 2030.  The elderly are rapidly making up a larger percentage of our population than are young people, and with this comes a greater need for more of these senior citizens to be assisted in some way.  One of the major challenges facing our senior citizens as they become less independent is depression.  It has been well studied and documented, that depression has a direct impact on mortality rates, and it is well known in the medical community that incidents that are demobilizing, but not necessary life threatening, (such as a broken hip), can trigger the beginning of the end to someone’s life when they succumb to the depression that their increasingly sedentary lifestyle has created.

Animal, music, art, and nature assisted therapies are ways to effect a positive change in a person’s mental state, and the physiological effects of these activities have been studied extensively. Many of these studies have focused on the effect that these non-pharmacological treatments have on persons with Alzheimer’s disease or Dementia, specifically the effect that they have on the crippling agitation that persons with these conditions experience. The confusing, altered states of memory and consciousness that these diseases create in the afflicted make even the simplest of daily tasks, such as brushing teeth, getting dressed, and even eating, unduly challenging, and the recurring discouragement that this difficulty poses for both caretaker and one being cared for can be alleviated by methods that do not require money, injections, treatments or pills.

There are numerous negative physical ramifications of these agitated behaviors, primarily related to the over production of stress hormones, the constant release of which can lead to immunosuppression, inappetence, hypertension (high blood pressure)/ cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal issues and a myriad of other pathologies. There are pharmaceutical options for the treatment and management of all of these issues individually, however, AAT is a non-conventional therapy that, for the most part, seems to be able to correct all of these secondary conditions simultaneously simply by addressing stress as the original source. In 1999, Purdue University conducted a study on the effect that live aquariums would have on the behavior and nutritional intake on 60 Alzheimer’s patients housed in 3 separate nursing homes in Indiana.

Not only did the study conclude that there was a significant (17.2%) increase in food intake in these patients after the introduction of the fish tanks, but also had marked results on cognition which were not anticipated by the researchers, such as improvements in short term memory functions, and a sharp increase in both the willingness and ability of these patients to engage and interact with the world around them in far more lucid capacities than they had before.  These remarkably positive results were made possible when these people were simply able to see live animals, without even being able to touch or interact with them, so when a volunteer makes the commitment to visit an Alzheimer’s ward with a therapy animal such as a dog, cat or even a bird on a regular basis, the ensuing improvement in salubrity of the residents is inevitable.  These people simply become happier when they are given the opportunity to interact in these ways, and that happiness is the catalyst for a cascade of benefits to their physical health. Basically, one’s mental health is distinctly correlated with one’s physical health, and, for the elderly, these types of non-medication therapies are ways in which an AAT volunteer can drastically improve their overall wellbeing and essentially contribute to the healing of an entire generation.

As exciting as all of this scientific research data is, I have to admit that it is my personal experience that I can relay anecdotally that had the most profound impact on me when it comes to proving the power of animal assisted (and other non-medication) therapy.  In the past, I have participated in a volunteer program that involved taking certified therapy dogs on a weekly basis to an assisted living facility, and I have to say that I ended up being as thankful, if not more so, to the residents and what my time with them meant to me as they were of me having the volition to visit them. Because of this, I chose to focus the majority of my time on the residents who, in addition to having some form of dementia or other mental disease, also did not have family to visit them or to help take care of them.  During my interactions with them, I felt a tangible, palpable change in their mood (for the better) that began as soon as I’d take one step into their room with the dog I had brought with me.

The calming, relaxing change that one felt almost just in the air of the room was, although immeasurable by scientific standards, very, very real nonetheless.  After a few short weeks of regular visits, I found myself developing a rapport with these people, who had up until recently in my life been complete strangers, that was arguably as close as any rapport I had with very close friends or members of my own family.  It felt as if some of these people could have been my grandparents, and the fact that I was, in such a pleasant and simple way, making such an enormous impact on their lives had, and has continued to have, a very real and lasting effect on me.  The powers of sympathy, empathy and altruism are in essence, medicinal in and of themselves.  I felt like a better person after my visits and I know that had a measurable positive impact on my health as well.  Exploring such activities is a worthy venture for the sake of furthering medicinal science and increasing quality of life standards for people of all ages.

There are a substantial number of groups, on both the local and national levels, who collaborate the implementation of animal assisted therapy for senior citizens and others living in assisted living facilities and nursing care homes.  One such organization that operates on a national level is the group” Pet Partners.  The group’s mission statement is “To improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond”, and their co-founder, Dr. Michael McCulloch, has it stated on their website (www.petpartners.org), that “In an age of research when it is tempting to reduce emotions to biochemical reactions and to rely heavily on the technology of medicine, it is refreshing to find that a person’s health and well-being may be improved by prescribing contact with other living things”.

Through the efforts of the approximately 13,000 Pet Partner teams that have active partnerships with assisted living facilities and hospitals nationwide, an untold and likely un-documentable amount of good has been done for our nation’s elderly, particularly the portion of our elderly afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and depression.  Virtually all of the approximately 16,000 nursing homes in the United States have come on board with the idea of implementing some sort of animal assisted therapy program for their residents, and the greatest part is that these programs cost the residents and the facilities nothing, and actually cost next to nothing overall.  The beauty behind this type of medical treatment is that it can be executed without the need for costly treatments, paid staff, research, or medications.

If we stop to consider the enormity of the contributions that the culmination of our elders have made to our society, and the trickle- down effect that those contributions have on current times and our present daily lives, then it seems only fair and prudent that those of us not in the 65+ category compensate these people now that they need us.  Our aging population should be viewed respectfully and with appreciation, and those of us who are able to participate in programs that work to fulfill that appreciation will without a doubt in turn be fulfilled as well by their selfless acts and motivations. Volunteerism costs nothing, yet yields so much, and it is paramount for us to remember that one of the most important ways in which our debt to our parents and grandparents can be repaid is through the benevolence of a volunteer.


Gaidos, S. (1999, August). “Study: Aquariums may pacify Alzheimer’s patients”. www.news.uns.purdue.edu

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