Dogs have been used as companions and supportive guides for people with visual impairments since the mid 1940s. While this is still the primary role of guide dogs in North America, canine companions are also beneficial to seniors with a variety of conditions and needs.
Dogs provide so many benefits to aging seniors that most senior living communities warmly welcome them in their residences.
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The Guide Dog Foundation is a national organization that specializes in matching adults who are classified as legally or totally blind, with a specially trained canine companion.
The Guide Dog Foundation was created with a specific goal in mind: to allow visually impaired individuals to live without boundaries.
Guide dogs are trained to help their owners safely navigate through their daily life and are matched with their new owners based on the person’s “mobility, personality, lifestyle and physical needs.” This meticulous matching process helps to ensure a bond is formed between the owner and canine companion, and a trusted and loving relationship can blossom.
Guide dogs are often only considered aides for people who are visually impaired, however they can offer support to people with a wide variety of medical conditions.
For example, therapy dogs can be a great support for seniors who are experiencing mental health challenges, including anxiety, clinical depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while other service dogs can help seniors with limited mobility, hearing impairments and medical conditions such as diabetes or seizure disorders. Seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can benefit greatly from a canine companion. The American Psychiatric Association refers to a study of people with Alzheimer’s, which concluded that “spending time with therapy dogs increased [the person living with Alzheimer’s] time recounting memories and feelings” and helped to improve their quality of life.
In 2013, the Dementia Dog project was developed by students at Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art’s Product Design Department, in partnership with Alzheimer Scotland, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs Scotland. The purpose of this project is to showcase that service dogs:
“Can help people with dementia maintain their waking, sleeping and eating routine, remind them to take medication, improve confidence, keep them active and engaged with their local community, as well as providing a constant companion who will reassure when facing new and unfamiliar situations.”
In addition to the practical support provided by these assistance dogs, they also provide companionship and friendship for their owner and improve their quality of life.
It has long been known that dogs have a powerful connection with human beings – the saying “man’s best friend” exists for a reason.
Research has shown that this connection can extend to the mental wellness of dog owners, for example the presence of dogs significantly enhances the effectiveness of other forms of conventional therapy for mental illness. As well, walking a dog provides purpose for individuals, especially seniors, who may experience loneliness and isolation in their day to day lives.
Guide dogs provide additional mental health benefits, including:
Owning a guide dog also aides in improved physical health for seniors. A report from Harvard Medical School found that owning a dog “can reduce a person’s blood pressure and help people lose weight and maintain a healthy body mass index.” Other physical health benefits include:
Although most senior living communities welcome guide dogs and therapy animals, not all do. In many states, having a guide dog is a right, but whether your canine assistant is considered a guide dog or a therapy dog could impact your guide dog handler rights.
For state-specific information and regulations about therapy dogs, check out this website.
Would a guide dog enhance the quality of life for a senior you know and love? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.