The laying on of paws

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Elizabeth Newman, McKnight's Senior Editor
Elizabeth Newman, McKnight's Senior Editor
Around 4 a.m. a few nights ago, I woke up feeling miserable. As I curled up back in bed after taking some meds, one of my cats hopped up next to me, looked at me with concern and laid a paw atop my arm.

Granted, I was feeling feverish, so the look of feline concern may have been hallucinated. But what I can say with certainty is that Eli the cat made me feel cheerier, and as I drowsily went back to sleep I thought, “Oh, this is why we should let residents in nursing homes live with their pets.”

This is not a new idea — Eden Alternative has long promoted pets in their centers and many nursing homes have regular visits from certified pet therapy animals. I wrote last year that Regency Nursing Care in Springfield, IL, which provided a second chance to Annie the cocker spaniel, and Volunteer Houston recently announced was seeking people willing train with their pets to visit nursing homes.

I suspect many people think of pets as kind of a frou-frou add-on for residents, one that can't be quantified in terms of dollars. While it can be hard to objectively gauge whether the lowering of blood pressure and loneliness lets your residents live longer, the evidence is mounting that you can't get your customers in the door without having a pet option. 

Take research from Varsity last year that showed CCRC tenants would wait longer for a pet-friendly unit. As that company's Shane Swisher told me, “Pets are now family. Especially as you see so many more people without children, people expect to bring their pets.”

Furthermore, anyone who spends a few minutes with Walter the therapy dog can see the positive impact on residents doing rehabilitation.

Culture change does not happen overnight. But for smaller, older facilities that know residents are bored, my recommendation is to see whether there is a volunteer group that can work with you to bring in animals. There is no shortage of groups that do this — the American Kennel Club has a long list of therapy dog organizations.

I know not everyone is an animal person. But nor are some people into bingo, technology or television. In an individualized era of care, tiptoeing into the waters of animals could help your bottom line. In the meantime, should I be in a healthcare environment anytime soon, please smuggle me in a cat.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.