Hope Hospice Connects Patients with Unique Pets During Pandemic

Hope Hospice is a nonprofit healthcare organization that has served the Tri-Valley and neighboring East Bay cities since 1980. Nearly one year ago, Hope Hospice introduced the use of animatronic pets to help lessen the impact that pandemic-related isolation was having on its patients. Joy for All Companion Pets by Ageless Innovation are robotic dog and cat toys designed specifically to comfort older adults in need of companionship. Early studies charted the benefits of these toy pets for people living with Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of cognitive decline. The pets are battery powered and, when stroked, become alert and make lifelike noises and small movements.

With a generous donation from NorCal Minis car club, Hope Hospice was able to purchase 20 Joy For All Companion Pet cats near the end of 2020. Due to hygiene protocols, especially during a time of heightened concern, the cats were gifted to recipients, and were not expected to be returned for reuse. The nonprofit plans to seek grant funding and donations to continue the program and to add lap-dog models to its program. 

Patients with dementia are especially prone to experiencing side effects of long-term social isolation and loneliness. "It's common for care providers to observe increased agitation, confusion, and repetitive behaviors in their patients who are struggling with a change in routine, like what this pandemic has caused," according to Gia Barsell, Manager of Dementia Services at Hope Hospice. "At Hope, we teach a lot about unwanted dementia-related behaviors, which can be things like agitation and generally being uncooperative for bathing and other daily activities. As the underlying disease that causes dementia progresses, verbal ability wanes and behaviors become the patient's main form of communication. So, the patient is usually trying to communicate an unmet need in the only way he or she can."

Pharmacological interventions may make agitated-patient care easier. But is that what is best for the patient? "These medicines essentially sedate the person, when it's better long-term to figure out what is causing agitation," notes Barsell. "Sometimes, it's a simple solution like identifying and treating a urinary tract infection or lowering ambient noise in a sitting room."

Clinical studies conducted with Joy for All Companion Pets have shown positive results in mitigating behavior issues and potentially improving cognitive abilities in older adults. Common findings across the studies showed positive changes including reduced anxiety and agitation, and improved overall well-being, resulting in socialization with others, decreased episodes of delirium, decreased need for psychotropic medications, and reduction in caregiver burden.

One care provider participating in a study reported that one patient "was withdrawn, rarely interactive, and frequently mumbled incoherently. With the introduction of the pup, the patient would smile, laugh, talk to, and pick up the pet. Her son observed that, as a result, she was more responsive to him."

In addition to many other services, Hope Hospice offers a Living With Dementia program to educate family caregivers and medical professionals about dementia and its varied symptoms, and how to provide the best care to persons living with the condition. The program is open to anyone. Hope also offers support groups that are open to the public in the Tri-Valley service area; there is no requirement to have a family member receiving Hope Hospice services. Additionally, its Family Caregiver Respite Program helps local low- and middle-income families care for a loved one living with dementia by giving recipients 16 hours of complimentary in-home care from a participating agency.

For more information about Hope Hospice, please visit hopehospice.com.

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