Bendigo aged care homes and healthcare facilities harness the power of pet therapy

WHEN Angel walks into the room, eyes light up and smiles spread across faces.

The friendly, golden-haired girl is very popular with residents on her weekly visits to Mercy Health Bethlehem Home for the Aged.

Angel is a Delta Therapy Dog, bringing the positive effects of animal companionship to the home’s residents.

For Mercy Health resident and animal lover Florence Jinks, Angel’s visits are a highlight.

She said animals had always been her companions, fondly recalling the border collie her mother gave her as a child.

“I love to see (Angel)… I’ve missed my own animals,” Mrs Jinks said.

Mercy Health Bethlehem lifestyle co-ordinator Kylie Paxton said Angel brought “a real calm” to residents, especially those with physical, emotional or cognitive difficulties.

Ms Paxton said many residents had had pets in the past and they had identified a need to incorporate animals into their care.

The home has permanent furry residents in the form of rabbit Ruby and Tammy the cat, who help deliver pet therapy on a daily basis.

Ms Paxton said the home also used to have a resident dog that brought “immense joy” to the residents.

The Delta Society, which runs the volunteer-driven Delta Therapy Dogs program, says contact with animals reduces fatigue, tension and confusion, increases enthusiasm and interest, boosts social interaction and physical activity and improves mental function.

Mercy Health Bethlehem is one of several organisations in the region making use of these positive powers of pets.

Angel’s owner and handler, Mary Tuohey, adopted the eight-year-old golden retriever last year and thought her gentle, friendly nature might make her a good fit for therapy – and it seems she was right.

Angel had assessments and Ms Tuohey underwent training before they began making their visits to the aged care home about five weeks ago.

Ms Tuohey said Angel brought the residents joy – “dogs just make people feel good” – but it was not only them who got something out of it.

She said Angel loved making the visits and she herself also found it to be a “great pleasure”.

Across Australia, Delta Therapy Dogs work in not only aged care homes, but prisons, hospitals and health care facilities.

Voluntary branch co-ordinator Vanda Iwanowski said as long as it had a nice temperament and basic obedience skills, almost any dog could become a therapy dog under the program.

She said people interested in volunteering needed to have a good relationship with their dog, be able to commit the time necessary, and be willing to travel to Geelong for assessment and training.