Caring for a Pet Helps Meet Essential Human Needs

As I sit at home writing this, I am warmed by a cuddly kitty in my lap and a dog at my side on the couch. My pets (I have four in all) are a core element of what home means to me.  When I think about the attachment to my pets and the comfort they provide me, I realize they fulfill what Tom Kitwood describes in his book Dementia Reconsidered as the “human needs.”

In addition to the needs of attachment and comfort, it turns out that my pets actually provide opportunities for me to meet the other human needs as well. Occupation has to do with the doing in life. Taking care of my animals – the act of petting, feeding, walking them – all fit into this need.

The other two human needs are inclusion and identity. Funny to think that when I am with my animals I do feel like I am part of the pack that makes up my home. I travel so frequently that this “being with” engenders a lot of satisfaction for me. It adds to my well-being. Finally, as a caring person, I get to practice that identity with my animals with the love and care I give them.

All of this leads me to thinking about those people I know and serve who live with dementia and the ability for their human needs to be met. If they have lived with animals, cared for them, befriended them, and yet, do not now have that opportunity in their lives, aren’t they missing out? Wouldn’t caring for a pet add to their well being the way it does mine? Are they not suffering a loss of attachment, comfort, occupation, inclusion and identity?

Photo by Lena Hummel

Photo by Lena Hummel

When my grandmother Margaret was still alive, and living with dementia, my aunt, uncle and cousin moved in with her to support her. And, oh yes, Maggie, my cousin Kathleen’s Golden Retriever, moved in too. Grandma was never exactly sure who my aunt and uncle were. She sometimes remembered Kathleen’s name. But, she always recognized Maggie. When she woke, she would ask if the dog had been out. Once she was up and moving she would check to see if the dog had been fed. She would let Maggie out in the backyard and let her back in, just as she had done with her old dog Spunky (and I imagine many dogs prior to my time!)

Maggie was a gift for my grandmother. Grandma had the ability to “be” in her normal role of caregiver and mother of the house. She could “do” the care, feeding, checking on, and opening of the door. Of course there was also the comfort and companionship this gently loving animal accepted from and provided for Grandma.

I hope as we get to know those individuals living with dementia, we consider how to include continuing relationships with people, as well as with animals, as a means of meeting the essential human needs.

Megan Hannan, MS, is an Executive Leader at Action Pact and has provided leadership in long-term care for over 25 years. Megan developed Action Pact’s signature train the trainer program, PersonFirst®. She serves on the Board of Directors of The Pioneer Network.

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