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Human-Animal Interaction and Intergenerational Programs: Little Moments of Joy Can Transform the Day

      The past two years have brought plenty of challenges to post-acute and long-term care (PALTC) communities, and many of us feel the weight of dealing with a marathon of problems that never seems to end. Despite all obstacles, we continue to return to the PALTC settings that we love, and many of us have found some solace in the positive experiences that we have with residents, families, and one another. These little moments of joy are priceless and can truly transform the day.
      One of the communities where I work recently adopted a pet rabbit. As it turns out, the new pet rabbit was pregnant, and a few weeks later five baby bunnies were born. While there was a lot of excitement when these new bunnies arrived, there was even more excitement when they opened their eyes and were sturdy enough to hold. I was lucky enough to be working the day that the recreation staff brought the bunnies out for their first resident and staff interaction. The sense of joy was palpable as residents and staff gathered to take turns admiring, holding, and caring for the baby bunnies. The residents even wanted to name their newfound friends and discussed several different names for the white-furred babies, including Snowball, Marshmallow, Ghost, and Diamond. The pleasure that those little rabbits provided helped to set the stage for the rest of the day, and residents and staff alike were a bit more at peace.
      Later in the day when family members stopped by to visit, I overheard several residents, many of whom are living with dementia, recount their experiences with the baby bunnies. They even took family members to the rabbit hutch to admire the mother rabbit and her babies. The rabbit hutch remains a popular walking destination of choice and has helped promote a little more physical activity in the community. The memories and smiles lasted into the next day for me as well, as I shared photos and stories of the special day with my friends and colleagues at the university.

      Human–Animal Interaction

      Like Karl Steinberg, the immediate past president of AMDA – The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine and editor emeritus of Caring for the Ages, I have always been an animal lover — particularly dogs — and have found that most staff and residents in PALTC respond positively to opportunities for human–animal interaction.
      Although many of the studies have been small, there is some evidence that human–animal interaction is associated with physical and psychosocial benefits for older adults in PALTC (Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen 2015;30:276–289; Anthrozoos 2019;32:283–291; Dementia 2019;18:245–261). I was surprised to find a qualitative study that explored the experience and meaning of rabbit-assisted activities for older adults (J Appl Gerontol 2018;37:1564–1575). The four themes that emerged from this study included “soothing experience,” “catalyst for communication and socialization,” “social support,” and “opportunities for making meaning.” These findings mirrored my observations of residents and staff during my recent baby bunny encounter.
      Although the evidenced-based literature informs our clinical practice, a good memoir can provide a new perspective and can lift the spirit. For those who might be interested in an insightful and heartwarming read, you might try Sue Halpern’s A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life From an Unlikely Teacher (Riverhead Books, 2013). I have found this book to be an excellent antidote to the negative media representations of PALTC: it truly captures the beauty and moving moments common in our lives. My friends from my neighborhood book club never quite understood my love of older adults and PALTC, but this book helped them to appreciate the “care” in long-term care.

      Intergenerational Programs

      In my master’s degree program, I had the amazing opportunity to do a clinical practicum at a continuing care retirement community that had a child daycare on site for the staff. It was a true intergenerational experience. Professional daycare staff and residents of the community helped to care for the children while the children engaged with residents in a variety of activities.
      But the best benefit was how the staff knew that their children were safe and well cared for. No one was rushing off and dealing with traffic at the end of their shift to pick up their children. As you can imagine, this had a remarkably positive impact on employee retention and built a true intergenerational community.
      Rather than investing in staffing agencies, I would much rather invest in such a program that would help residents’ engagement and quality of life while also helping retention and peace of mind for staff. For other creative ideas, please check out “Intergeneration Programs Spark Fountains of Youth, Creativity” by Joanne Kaldy’s in this issue of Caring.
      Please share with us the little things that bring you joy in your career in PALTC! Animals and children are a start, but I know there is so much more to share.
      Dr. Galik is editor in chief of Caring for the Ages, professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, and a nurse practitioner in LTC through a clinical practice with Sheppard Pratt Health System. The views the editor expresses are her own and not necessarily those of the Society or any other entity.

      Related Podcast

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      In this episode Karl Steinberg and Elizabeth Galik discuss the unfolding research on long COVID in older adults and long-term care residents, a model for behavioral health integration, human-animal interactions and intergenerational programs in nursing homes, and the link between breakfast protein quality and sarcopenia.

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