Exotic Animals Bring Farm Home to Senior Living Residents

While the incorporation of dogs and cats in senior living as part of pet therapy programming is not new, one community is taking it to the next level by also housing a variety of barnyard animals who live year-round on its 43-acre campus.

Not only are the animals helping residents at Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley — many of whom grew up on area farms — connect with familiar animals, but the presence of such exotic animals as llamas is also seen as a selling point for the community. 

The senior living community offers a daily farm-like experience for residents with two llamas, one alpaca, five goats, more than a dozen chickens and three dogs. The program started as a pet therapy program with center Director Ellen Levinson’s two golden retrievers 18 years ago.

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“It’s not a happy situation for family members who tried to care care of their family member to then move them into a nursing home,” Levinson says, noting the senior living community offers skilled nursing, Alzheimer’s and respite care among its services. “They might be ridden with guilt. Sometimes just talking about the llamas helps, seeing them among the rolling hills and beautiful gardens [on the property].”

And, having the exotic animals has created a unique niche of branding for the community.

“It’s part of our name recognition,” Levinson says. “We’re known as the place with the llamas that’s nice to visit.”

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Life Care Centers of America, the community’s parent company, with 200 facilities across the country, has a policy to rarely resort to medications for unruly residents, Levinson says, noting the therapeutic value of the animals. 

“We promote the low use of psychoactive drugs,” she says. “Studies show that stroking an animal’s head lower’s blood pressure.”

Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley also offers post-acute rehabilitation, and recent research shows the positive impact animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can have on reducing the need for pain medication after joint-replacement surgery.

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In the study, AAT consisted of daily visits from specially trained dogs for an average of five to 15 minutes. Those in the AAT group had a lessened need for oral pain medication, about 28% less, than those not in the AAT group.

“The animal-human connection is powerful in reducing stress and in generating a sense of well-being,” says Julia Havey, MSN, RN, CCM, lead author, Loyola University Health System, in the study. “This study further demonstrates the positive influence animals can have on human recovery.”

Data were published in the August/September issue of Anthrozoos by researchers from Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and Loyola University Health System. Anthrozoos is the official journal of the International Society for Anthrozoology.

Giving directors at local sites the freedom to experiment and try new things helps programs such as these thrive, says Zofia Long, vice president of Life Care’s Northeast Division, noting that she is working with other sites to roll out similar programming. 

“The challenges are always that [providers] in health care are always afraid to take risks,” Long says. “People can worry and create barriers to almost anything. There’s more to health than just medicine, pills. Sometimes it’s a little simpler than that.”

The 24/7 maintenance of animals is done by staff who share Levinson’s passion for animals, as well as outside volunteers.

“You want to utilize those passions you find in your staff,” Levinson says, noting that the memory support unit manager cares for the chickens, and a maintenance employee works with the larger animals because of his previous experience with horses. “It takes time and commitment. It can’t be done by one person.

“You need to be willing to experiment a little bit, and accept failure as part of the process.”

Some animals work better for a certain population of residents than others, she says, noting that attempts an integrating cats into the program have not gone well.

“We tried three, but they never work,” she says.

Written by Cassandra Dowell

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