The UK has for the first time deployed specially trained dogs to assist people who are coping with dementia in a wonderful project that is changing lives.
Two-year-old golden Labrador Kaspa, one of the first dogs in the UK to receive the training necessary to assist dementia sufferers, is now the canine companion of a very grateful Scottish couple who have been affected by the syndrome.
Three years ago, Mr. Ken Will, at the age of 79, was diagnosed with vascular dementia. His wife, Mrs. Glenys Will, 66, decided to take on the considerable responsibility of becoming his carer.
Dementia is a degenerative syndrome that leads to increasing mental impairment, with memory loss and language breakdown being two of its more particularly distressing facets. It usually affects over-65s, though there are cases of early on-set dementia.
The syndrome’s impact on mental acuity means that dementia sufferers can, when left on their own, be at risk of causing themselves injury, being unable to spot dangerous situations, or getting lost while out in the wider world.
Particularly distressing to many family members is the fact that the mental decline in sufferers can partially or even completely erase memories of lives and events shared together, and sufferers as a result can become upset or even angry.
This is what Mrs. Will has said she has found difficult about dealing with her husband’s condition, telling the Independent that “We’ve been married 48 years but often I’ve sat and looked at him and thought, ‘I don’t know who this person is’.”
However, when dementia dog Kaspa arrived, Mrs. Will says things changed for the better.
Kaspa has been taught how to fetch medicines, wake up his human companions and also to carry light objects.
These may all sound like relatively small things, but Kaspa’s presence has helped bring Mr. and Mrs. Will closer as a couple by relieving stress and providing a calming force in the house.
“Kaspa has totally given us our lives back,” Mrs. Will is quoted as saying. “Ken is much happier because he’s got the dog and we can go out now. We can go shopping together, we can even go on holidays. We are a lot more relaxed since the dog came because if Ken gets in a mood and angry, the dog comes and nudges him and he forgets his problems. I’ve got a good bit of him back again.”
Oscar, a two-year-old golden retriever, is another Dementia Dog helping another Scottish couple, Frank and Maureen Benham. Mrs. Benham, 69, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and her husband attests that Oscar has transformed their lives so much that he couldn’t contemplate being without Oscar.
The Dementia Dog project began as a Glasgow School of Art initiative, funded by both the Scottish Executive and the Design Council, as part of the Living Well with Dementia Challenge and is a collaboration between Alzheimer Scotland, The Glasgow School of Art, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs UK.
Having gone through initial research stages, the Dementia Dog project is now in its small-scale pilot scheme phase, with just the two qualified assistance dogs deployed to help carers.
The project is now looking to recruit people with early stage dementia that they can match to their specially trained assistance dogs. The pilot scheme is set to last for one full year, but any dogs placed with families are of course intended to stay with those households.
Joyce Gray, deputy director of development at Alzheimer Scotland, a group that you will note was involved in the project, has delighted in the project’s success, saying, “Dementia Dog has had a truly wonderful impact on the families involved and Alzheimer Scotland is delighted to have been part of this ground-breaking project.”
The idea of Dementia Dogs has also been welcomed by wider groups who hope that this project may be applied elsewhere.
While talk of the healing power of animal companionship can often sound saccharine and contrived, the Dementia Dogs project demonstrates yet another way humans have managed to benefit from their relationship with our fellow animals, and fortunately this time with a good outcome all round.
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