A wagging tail brings health benefits to St. Mary’s

December 24, 2007

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

With his tail wagging and lots of enthusiasm, Sox, a border collie owned by Cindi Ackerman of Winsted, greeted residents at St. Mary’s Care Center, giving them his undivided attention.

Sox has achieved his AKC Canine Good Citizens certification, which allows him to visit the care center with Ackerman. The response to his visit was remarkable to see.

In the hallway, people took time to stop and talk with Sox and pet him, and that included the staff. There were smiles and instant conversation.

Although Sox is certainly not aware of the therapeutic benefits made by his presence, research shows visiting pets to be a social stimulus, encouraging physical activity, and it reduces blood pressure, anxiety, and loneliness in the elderly.

“The medical staff is often surprised to see residents suddenly come alive. Animals have calming effects on humans, and benefit mental well-being, especially with children and the elderly,” according to Pawprints and Purrs, Inc. at www.sniksnak.com/therapy.html.

“What experts know, is that animals allow humans to focus, even for a short period of time, on something other than themselves. Pets help Alzheimer’s patients by bringing them back to the present.”

Ackerman has been training Sox since he was just a few months old.

To begin with, it was just 10 minutes every day doing something like basic obedience commands.

In addition, he has had six weeks of special training becoming familiar with people in wheelchairs and on crutches. Sox has been taught to not jump up on anyone.

Learning how to handle a visiting pet is part of the instruction. Both the owner and the dog are taught that not all people like dogs. Dogs can generally sense it. The owner should also be aware.

Before coming to St. Mary’s, Ackerman had volunteered at Waconia’s care center. She went there about twice a month with Sox and said the visits were appreciated.

“I just want to share him with people,” she said. “He is such a joy, and he is so soft to pet and they say it is such a healthy thing for people. And I can visit with the residents, too, while I bring Sox around,” Ackerman said.

When St. Mary’s Therapeutic Recreation Manager Michele Muller received the call from Ackerman asking if she and Sox could visit, Muller was pleased, thinking it was an excellent idea and would definitely benefit the residents.

“We used to have a dog, a Lab, here at St. Mary’s. He was trained for services as a seeing eye dog. Our director of nursing had the dog and would bring him in every day,” Muller said. “That was in the ‘90s. He was here for about eight years. His name was Buster. He would go from room to room. He knew he could not go in the dining room and coffee shop.”

Muller is aware that not all people like dogs. She believes the animals are a comfort, but knows some people do not appreciate them.

For Sox’s first day, Muller went with Ackerman from room to room, deciding that it was probably the best way to start getting Sox accustomed to the center.

Professionals in the field of pet-assisted therapy find that besides cats and dogs, fish, pot-bellied pigs, birds, reptiles, rabbits, guinea pigs, goats, horses, and llamas are also valuable healers, according to Pawprints and Purrs.

St. Mary’s doesn’t have any pot-bellied pigs or llamas running around, but it does have two large cages for bird watchers, and residents enjoy watching the different birds throughout the day.

On occasion, the staff has also been willing to share their pets with the residents. Director of Nursing April Anderson brings her dog, Queenie, in with her, and Heather Treb and Kayla Parpart, nursing staff, bring in their dogs, as well.

Video game another form of therapy

About a year ago, at Christmas time, one of St. Mary’s occupational therapists was playing the new Nintendo Wii video game with her son. The video game required whole body motion to control the game activity rather than just sitting on the couch pushing buttons.

In order to play the video bowling game, she needed to stand and swing her arms while timing and coordinating her movements on the screen. She even got winded and worked up a sweat.

It was at that point she realized the game might be helpful to her patients.

She presented the idea to the manager at St. Mary’s, but the timing wasn’t quite right because the facility had too many other competing priorities for funds.

Then, when the Star Tribune ran a story about an occupational therapist at Sister Kenny Institute using the same video game to improve function in a stroke patient who loved to play golf, authorization was quickly obtained.

Today, at St. Mary’s the Nintendo Wii is being used with selected patients who respond better with an interactive therapy activity than a stationary one.

Therapists are quick to point out that video games are not used in therapy just for entertainment or recreational purposes.

It is a method of getting the patient engaged and involved in a meaningful activity that allows them to work longer and harder on their actual functional treatment goals. For some, it’s a distraction from pain or discomfort while exercising, for others it’s more interesting than repetitive exercises with weights.