Creature comfort

A practitioner using animal-assisted therapy achieves rencouraging results with young and old alike.

animal therapy 88.298 (photo credit: )
animal therapy 88.298
(photo credit: )
The old man lies apathetically in the bed of his nursing home, his mind drifting, his watery eyes unfocused. He barely responds to visitors or when staff move him around to feed, wash or exercise him. But when 27-year-old Karin Dezent arrives with her fluffy white cat Shanti in her arms, his eyes flicker back into focus. And when she places the warm bundle into his stiff, thin arms, the creased face breaks slowly into a smile and the gnarled hands begin stroking Shanti's soft fur. "Elderly people love Shanti," says Dezent. "You can see their eyes light up when I put him in their arms. They stroke him and suddenly start to talk. They ask what his name is and if he's eaten. Some of them with dementia don't remember that they've already asked me, so they ask me over and over again, but that's okay." Dezent is a practicing animal therapist, a field that is already fairly well established and growing steadily. Animal therapy or, more accurately, animal-assisted therapy, involves more than simply bringing an animal over for an elderly person or a disabled child to pet. For the elderly, animal-assisted therapy can reduce depression and loneliness, provide an occupation and interest, stimulate their memories and provide physiotherapy. For autistic and other special-needs children, animal-assisted therapy can offer a means of connection to the outside world, serve as a teaching tool for subjects such as mathematics and biology, and help children learn qualities such as patience, gentleness and empathy. "Animals can sometimes do things for a person that words or other therapy methods cannot do," says Dezent. Dezent grew up in Kfar Saba, the elder of two girls. Her mother is a Canadian immigrant, and her father was born in Israel to an English mother. Dezent says she always loved animals and was forever bringing home stray and abused mammals, reptiles and birds and would take care of them until they were well. She kept some of the animals, while the birds and wild species were released or donated to petting zoos. "When I was about five years old, the second-hand goods man came down the street and I brought home his donkey," she recalls. "I looked after it for a while, but of course, I couldn't keep it so we gave it to a petting zoo." Hardly surprisingly, Dezent wanted to become a veterinarian but found university demands too stringent. Instead, she obtained a degree in behavioral sciences from Netanya College. Even while she was studying, she kept in close contact with animals and had a job conducting nature activities at kindergartens. This generally involved bringing along an animal such as a rabbit or gerbil, teaching the children about it, and letting them hold and pet it. "I really learned a lot from that job," she says. In particular, she realized that she felt a special connection to children with disabilities. When her grandfather became quite depressed and unwell after his wife passed away, she realized that she also wanted to work with the elderly. "I seem to have a special bond with those groups - the elderly and special-needs children," she says. After obtaining her degree, she went on to study animal-assisted therapy at Levinsky College, near Tel Aviv, and recently obtained her diploma. During the two-year course, she began working with special-needs children at several centers and with the elderly at the Beit Hashemesh nursing home in Hod Hasharon. The animals for the sessions come from her sizable collection of adopted stray cats, dogs, ferrets, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, lizards, turtles, snakes and birds. All the animals have been vaccinated, groomed, manicured and spayed/neutered, and are gentle-natured and unafraid of people. "Until three weeks ago I had about 100 animals in the house," she says. "My mother has been very patient." But then Dezent persuaded the Hod Hasharon nursing home to open a petting zoo, where most of her animals have now been moved. This makes her work with the elderly easier and, she hopes, will encourage more visits from the grandchildren. Dezent says that animal-assisted therapy can have a profound effect. "I worked with one nine year-old special-needs boy who had a lot of problems. He had trouble keeping his balance and was very heavy-handed. He also lacked patience and would interrupt all the time and rush to grab the animals. He liked the rabbit, but he used to grab it and hold it too tightly. I taught him that he has to hold out a carrot and wait for the rabbit to come to him, then let it climb up his legs and then stroke it gently. I didn't see much change in the first few months, but then I began to see progress - his movements became more organized and he was more gentle and patient. He learned to wait and not to interrupt, and he developed more self-control. It helped him with the other children, too, because before that he would just grab them and hug them." Similarly, Dezent is particularly proud of her work with a patient at the Hod Hasharon nursing home. "This woman had moderate dementia and was hunched over in her wheelchair. The first few months were very repetitive - I brought her different animals, but she didn't show any real interest. Then one day I brought a rooster, and she suddenly looked up, said it was a beautiful color and wanted to feed it. I wondered if she had raised chickens, but she couldn't remember. So I brought more birds for her, and she did sometimes remember things from her past. She had been a nurse. Then I brought along a raven I had found with crooked legs due to rickets. She came alive and said we must give it water. Then she told me how to tie its legs in splints. In that visit she went from being a helpless patient to taking care of something again." (Dezent still visits the woman, even though her dementia has progressed to the point where she no longer responds to anything.) "It's fascinating to see the way different people respond to different animals," she says. "Blind children, surprisingly, don't want to touch soft animals such as rabbits and cats. They like touching turtles and lizards. Deaf children like putting their hands on an animal's stomach, especially Shanti's. They can feel him purring. Autistic children like watching water animals like ducks and snails. If I splash them, they start to laugh." And, she says, the animals help children socialize. "I take my dog Lolly - so named because she licks everything - for one boy who likes walking her. It gives him an outlet for his energy, and it helps him make friends with the other kids because they come up to him to talk about her." Dezent hastens to add that not everyone likes touching animals. "That's okay," she says. "They can look at the animals or at fish in an aquarium. That can stimulate their minds too, and it may prompt them to move their hands or bodies. We call it passive therapy." Dezent plans to introduce yet another angle to the animal-assisted therapy idea: reading dogs. "The reading dog program has been running in the US for about 10 years. The idea is that kids with reading problems work with a therapist and, basically, read to a specially trained dog. The premise is that it's threatening than reading to a teacher because the dog isn't judgmental. I'm checking to see how it all works now and am hoping that I might be able to use Lolly, or maybe have a reading cat and use Shanti." To contact Karin Dezent, call 0548-138169.