THURSDAY, July 24, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- When the elderly woman first arrived at Brooke Grove Retirement Village in Sandy Spring, Md., some of the staffers were skeptical when they saw she had brought her cat along.
The woman, in the early stages of dementia, "floated in and out," according to Jackie Carson, the assisted living administrator at Brooke Grove, a center specializing in Alzheimer's care.
Staffers had to help the woman remember to feed the cat, and some were initially resentful, saying their job was to care for people, not animals, she added.
But slowly, the staff came around, when they saw all the benefits that the cat conferred on the residents, Carson, a registered nurse, said.
"The cat grounded her," she explained.
Brooke Grove is now among a growing number of assisted-living facilities that are actively encouraging seniors to bring along their well-behaved pets -- or inviting them to "adopt" resident pets.
The practise of encouraging seniors in such facilities to interact with pets has many benefits.
Just ask Loren Shook, CEO of Silverado Senior Living, the San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based company that operates 17 assisted-living facilities in four states for residents with dementia.
"Pets are useful in reducing depression, anxiety and re-engaging people in life," Shook said. "We are committed to making it work."
Often, when a resident has seen many friends pass away, he or she considers their dog or cat a good friend and part of the family. "It is so important for a person's general happiness in life not to have to give up on one of their last friends," he said.
Pets offer proven health benefits. They can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reduce feelings of loneliness, and increase opportunities for socializing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 10 percent of Silverado's 1,030 residents arrive with their pets in tow, Shook estimated. Staff members -- Shook included -- often bring their dogs to work, and the facilities also have pets-in-residence.
Shook recalls one dog, a black lab named Asher, who lived at the Newport Mesa community in Costa Mesa, Calif. One resident there wasn't eating or communicating and was losing weight.
"Asher sees this guy walking around with his hands hanging down," Shook said. "He goes over and puts his head under his hand. In 15 minutes' time, that man is down on one knee, petting Asher and talking to him."
"The staff jumped in and redirected the man from the dog to them," Shook said, adding that the man was soon eating regularly, talking and engaging with other residents.
Another woman with dementia had stopped communicating. So staffers put a cat in her lap. "She began talking to the cat in about a week," Shook said. Not long afterward, she was accompanying her daughter to the race track, cheering on her favorite horse.
Dennis Hunter, vice president of Brook Grove Retirement Village, said it's important to keep the environment in a retirement community as normal as possible. "For most people that includes pets," he said.
And when a resident passes away? "We make sure the pet is taken care of," Shook explained. If family members can't take the pet, a staff member may adopt it, or the pet may become a "pet in residence." Or, the facility will find a good home elsewhere, he said.
To learn more about the benefits of pets, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.