Monday, January 14, 2019

Volunteers extend “healing paws” to persons with dementia

For many nursing home residents, having volunteers visit with their cheerful “furkids” – dogs, cat, even rabbits, can be the highlight of their day. However, some residents with dementia may not get to enjoy these visits as much because volunteers are not as familiar with their condition.

A group of volunteers from Healing Paws, a community outreach group under Save our Street Dogs (SOSD), hopes to change that. In December 2018, they attended a special three-hour training session to boost their understanding of dementia.

The training session, conducted by MontfortCare and based on materials developed by Agency for Integrated Care (AIC)’s Community Mental Health Division, helped volunteers better understand dementia and equipped them with communication tips to engage persons with dementia.

The session was a bonus for long-time volunteers like Stasha Wong, who is keen to share the benefits of animal-assisted activities with nursing home residents, especially those with dementia. Stasha, SOSD Secretary and Healing Paws Coordinator, recalled a memorable connection between an 8-year old French Bulldog called Kobe, who listened intently as an elderly resident shared aspects of his personal story.

“It was one of my most memorable experiences. The volunteers and I were at a loss of words as the resident became emotional. His eyes reddened and tears welled at the corners. The volunteers and I hardly said much but the resident continued to pat Kobe, our dog volunteer, while sharing his story. It dawned on me that our experience would have been very different had we not been regulars, or if Kobe had not been there to comfort him in his grief.”

SOSD is a Singapore-based organisation devoted to rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming stray dogs. It started the Healing Paws programme in 2014 which aims to provide comfort and warmth by enabling individuals, including those with dogs, to volunteer their time with its partners such as nursing homes, community hospitals and youth homes.

Dog volunteers with their human handlers at a Nursing Home. (Photo credit: Healing Paws, SOSD)
A dog volunteer with a nursing home resident. (Photo credit: Thye Hua Kwan Nursing Home)
A resident at Ling Kwang Home for Senior Citizens enjoying the company of her dog volunteer. (Photo credit: Healing Paws, SOSD)

One of Healing Paws’ recent partners, Thye Hua Kwan (THK) Nursing Home, has already begun to see positive results within a few short months of the visits from Healing Paws.

“Most of our residents are very responsive to the dogs. They would cuddle, pet and even walk the dogs in our Healing Garden. A few of the residents living with dementia even started recounting memories of having a family pet dog. This programme has been useful as it has helped our residents to overcome feelings of boredom and loneliness. We are looking forward to more volunteers who can confidently engage our residents, especially those living with dementia or who are recovering from stroke,” said Alphonso D’ Conceicao, Operations Executive (Community), THK Nursing Home.

Alphonso also observed that the dog volunteers are a source of comfort and joy to the residents as the residents enjoyed themselves during the programme.

A resident cuddling a dog volunteer. (Photo credit: Thye Hua Kwan Nursing Home)

Indeed, the rich relationship programme focus is the reason why Ying, a Healing Paws volunteer, continues to visit with her dog at such sessions.

“Seeing the happy faces of the residents every time we visit and how they enjoy interacting and petting my dog, Coco Bear, is more than enough reason for us to keep coming back.”

A resident connecting with a dog volunteer. (Photo credit: Thye Hua Kwan Nursing Home)

Stasha has seen first-hand how Healing Paws’ interactions with both the human and dog volunteers can form very deep and personal connections.

“Our programme is more than just our dogs. Volunteers who make the most out of their time with Healing Paws are those who proactively seek opportunities to connect with the people they visit or other volunteers – either to share their dog's special tricks, or a story of something that happened to them over the weekend. This brings laughter, comfort or simply empathetic company.”

Healing Paws is always on the lookout for new volunteers. To be part of the initiative, volunteers need to commit to visiting monthly for at least 6 months – either amongst the various partner organisations or with the same uncle or auntie. Their pets should be confident, friendly, and manageable in all environments and with different people, so that they too can enjoy the visits.

If you’re keen to volunteer with Healing Paws, please visit https://sosd.org.sg/join-us/volunteer-with-healing-paws.

A resident grooming a dog volunteers – one of the animal-assisted activities offered during visits. (Photo credit: Thye Hua Kwan Nursing Home)
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