Pet Therapy is not exactly a new idea in the aged care space, but over the last few years there has been a definite increase in the number of aged care facilities that have begun to incorporate the love and companionship of animals as a way to stimulate residents and combat issues of loneliness and social isolation.

Animals can provide a sense of both joy and companionship to older people who are lonely, and it has been proven that interacting with animals also have a profound impact on the lives of elderly people who are living with dementia.

Nestled in the northern suburbs of Wollongong, the Marco Polo Nursing Home was recently visited by a very unusual guest, who is having a very big impact on the lives of the residents that call the Woonona aged care facility home.

Bushman is a snowflake Appaloosa horse that has been dubbed a ‘Therapist with Hooves’ because of the calming effect that he has on aged care residents that are living with dementia.

horse room

Former aged-care nurse Christe Hall is the proud owner of Bushman, and in a recent interview with the ABC, she highlighted the extraordinary temperament and special gifts that allow the 16 year-old horse to connect so strongly with the elderly people that he encounters.

“Sometimes he just knows when a resident needs him more,” Ms Hall said.

“I don’t know how to explain that, because I don’t know how he does it. If a resident’s really upset or agitated, he’ll make it his effort to calm them down and it works every time.”

“I get asked quite often ‘oh how did you train him to do that?’ and I say ‘I didn’t, he just does it’,it’s one thing I can’t explain.”

The link between a person’s memory and the prevalence of dementia is well documented, and awakening positive memories in the minds of elderly people can have a stunning and immediate impact in their mental wellbeing.

Things that are positive and familiar have a way of drawing a smile out of people from all walks of life, and for elderly people with cognitive impairment, sadly, these smiles can often be few and far between, which make them extremely valuable.

There are a number of different techniques that have been used to trigger the memories of elderly people over the years – including familiar music from their childhood, environments that have been furnished to resemble past decades, and of course, animals.

Horses seem to have as particularly profound effect on older Australians due to the fact that Australia has strong farming traditions. Many Australians in their 70s, 80s and 90s grew up in environments alongside horses, and seeing and feeling Bushman up close can trigger a variety of amazing reactions.

horse pat

“Residents that never talked started talking, residents that didn’t want to leave their rooms, actually came out of their rooms,” Ms Hall said

Nursing home resident Eric Trezice grew up in the Victorian gold-rush town of Ballarat and has spent the last 12 months as a resident at the Marco Polo Nursing Home.

Eric grew up working alongside horses, which were then used to drag logs out of the forest, so getting the chance to get up-close and personal with bushman was an experience that allowed Eric to showcase the skills that he developed many years ago.

“I talk calmly to them, always did,” he said.

“It’s probably one of the most therapeutic things that I’ve had in my later life. I’m 90 now and this has brought back how beautiful [it is] reading the eyes of a horse.”

Photo Supplied: ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss

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