The breathtaking majesty of equine power and grace has given horses a storied place in the lives and legends of human beings. Now, a new study from Ohio State University has found that horses can also have a near-magical effect on people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Instead of engaging in their usual crafts and exercise classes at an adult day center, eight adults with Alzheimer’s volunteered to feed, walk, paint and groom horses at a local farm once a week for a month. The horses were specially-selected for their calm, easygoing dispositions and participation in a prior therapeutic riding program for children with physical and developmental disabilities.
The effect on the older adults was almost instantaneous, according to Holly Dabelko-Schoney, lead author and associate professor of social work at Ohio State. “The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidences of negative behavior,” she says in a university news release.
The benefits of equine interaction
Increased isolation, pain and stress often accompany advancing age; a fact which has led to a rise in the use of animal-based therapy in elder care settings. The science-backed benefits of interacting with animals—reduced anxiousness, enhanced feelings of calm—endure, regardless of an individual’s age.
Animal therapy for the elderly has traditionally been the purview of smaller animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, geese, etc. (One study even found that watching fish swim around a fish tank and eat could convince a reluctant elder with Alzheimer’s to eat.) These animals are easy to transport to a variety of locations and typically don’t pose a serious threat to an aging adult’s health or safety.
Due in part to the success of therapeutic riding programs for children with Autism and other conditions marked by difficulty with mental and motor skill development, Alzheimer’s care specialists are now beginning to branch out, using bigger animals such as horses (both miniature and regular-sized) and llamas to enrich the lives of aging adults with dementia.
As the Ohio State study demonstrates, these interventions could potentially have major positive implications for seniors and their caregivers.
After the older adults interacted with the horses, mouth swabs were used to determine the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the senior’s saliva and a modified version of the Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale—a test commonly used to monitor behavioral issues in people living in long-term care settings—was used to measure their emotional response. Across the board, those seniors who interacted with the horses scored better on the behavior scale than those who participated in the normal activities at the adult day care center.
Surprisingly, individuals with Alzheimer’s who worked with the equines had higher levels of cortisol in their saliva—indicating that they were more stressed. Due to the fact that these patients were smiling and engaging positively with the animals, study authors attribute this finding to increased levels of “good” stress that can arise when a person is exposed to a new situation where they feel in control and accomplished.
Despite various mobility limitations—which, for some, included being in a wheelchair—helping the horses motivated the men and women with Alzheimer’s to become more physically active. Even the most inhibited patients opened up in a positive way with the animals.
Even if the effects didn’t last long, researchers were heartened by the possibility of equine therapy leading to true enhancement of the lives of people with Alzheimer’s. As Dabelko-Schoney says, “Our focus is on the ‘now.’ What can we do to make them feel better and enjoy themselves right now? Even if they don’t remember it later, how can we help in this moment?”
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