The Importance of Animals During Post-Acute Recovery

Sullivan Park resident taking senior foster dog for a walk.

Animal assisted therapy (AAT), or pet therapy, is intended to improve healing for people who are recovering from a serious injury, illness, or health condition by engaging with animals, such as dogs or cats.

AAT is becoming more common in post-acute care settings as studies have shown it can help increase the quality of life in older adults as they are recovering from a hospitalization. It has also been proven to help improve the mental and social well-being of those with chronic health conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, or Dementia.

As a person is recovering from a hospitalization at a care facility, they may be experiencing physical and cognitive limitations. This can bring on a sense of anxiousness and uncertainty, paired with the lack of feeling needed as they’re striving to return to their independence. The ability to interact with an animal, or pet, gives them the chance to provide their own care and feel needed, versus being cared for, which can significantly improve their emotional wellness.

In addition to helping reduce anxiety, spending time caring for an animal during recovery can also help stimulate cognitive abilities, increase physical activity, and improve independence in older adults. Pet therapy programs provide opportunities for residents to engage in meaningful activities. This might include playing with the animal, feeding it, and giving the animal pets and affection.

At Sullivan Park Care Center, a Prestige Care Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, residents have partnered with SpokAnimal C.A.R.E., a local animal shelter, to start the Hearts and Paws Program. While Hearts and Paws is not an animal assisted therapy program, it is a dog-fostering program that has similar benefits for post-acute care patients.

This entirely resident-run program is intended to find senior shelter dogs a forever home with the benefit of giving the residents a chance to provide their own care and feel needed. The residents foster one senior shelter dog from SpokAnimal at a time and take turns exercising, feeding, brushing, and giving the dog any medications they may need. While SpokAnimal is responsible for selecting and screening the dog to be fostered, the residents at Sullivan Park have taken charge of caring for the dog and handling the entire adoption process.

“It’s done a lot for all of us to have these dogs around and know that we’re going to get them a forever home,” said Vicky Aldridge, Sullivan Park resident, during a KREM 2 interview. “It helps all of us, not just the dogs, it helps all the residents too. It makes us feel like we’re worthwhile still.”

While Hearts and Paws is not an official pet therapy program, it does give the residents a sense of purpose and meaning, improving their quality of life and independence during their own recovery journey. They are able to care for and find forever homes for the senior foster dogs which increases their physical activity and improves their cognitive abilities.  

“In nursing homes in general, even if people are receiving wonderful, compassionate care, people at their core still need to be needed; they need to have a reason to get out of bed,” said Matt Lysobey, Sullivan Park Administrator, during a Spokesman-Review interview.

Since the Hearts and Paws program began in March 2022, the residents have found homes for 13 senior dogs. Once the foster dog has been adopted, SpokAnimal brings in another for the residents to care for. Hearts and Paws has allowed Sullivan Park residents who are overcoming physical and cognitive obstacles to continue bringing value to their community and save senior shelter dogs.

“This program is important because I feel the dog can still bring a lifetime of joy to someone,” said Patty Mitchell, a Sullivan Park resident and the program’s adoption coordinator.

The senior foster dogs at Sullivan Park are posted on the center’s Facebook page, as well as SpokAnimal’s website. To find out about adopting the current foster dog, contact Patty on the adoption hotline at 509-846-3237.

Source: “SpokAnimal launching “Heart and Paws” Program”, KREM 2, 04/14/22

Source: “Hearts and Paws: Skilled nursing center patients foster older dogs until adoption”, The Spokesman-Review, 01/16/23