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Caring for Horses Can Help Dementia Symptoms

Spending time with horses eases dementia symptoms for Alzheimer’s patients, according to the first study of its kind.

The research, a collaboration between The Ohio State University and an adult daycare center, revealed that patients could groom, feed and walk horses under supervision. That experience improved patients’ mood and made them less likely to resist care or become upset later in the day.

The results, published in the journal Anthrozoos, indicate that equine therapy, now used for children and teens who have emotional and developmental disorders, could work for adults.

Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor of social work at Ohio State, said that equine therapy could be a unique way to ease the symptoms of dementia without drugs.

“We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can—absolutely,” Dabelko-Schoeny said. “The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior.”

Participants in the study were nine women and seven men from a National Church Residences Center for Senior Health in downtown Columbus. Clients in the center usually take part in activities such as crafts and exercise to manage dementia.

In the study, eight participants remained at the center while the other eight went to the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center in Blacklick, Ohio once a week for a month. The horses that the participants interacted with were picked for their gentleness and calm.

The patients smiled, laughed and talked to the horses. Even participants who normally acted withdrawn became fully engaged.

There was a clear improvement in dementia-related behavior among the clients who visited the farm. To track behavior, the researchers used a scoring system called the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale. The participants were less likely to fidget, resist care, become upset or lose their temper.

On a scale of zero to four—zero meaning the client never engaged in the problem behavior, and four meaning that they always engaged in it—scores for the participants who went to the farm were an average of one point lower than the scores for their peers who stayed at the center.

The therapy had another benefit: It boosted the patients’ physical activity visit by visit, even among those who were disabled.  Some clients who never wanted to leave their wheelchair asked for help in standing up; others who rarely wanted to walk stood up and walked unassisted.

Gwendolen Lorch, assistant professor of veterinary clinical medicine at Ohio State and co-author of the study, said that the country setting may have made the therapy more effective. “I think another positive influence for these clients was the environment. They found the quietness and smells of the country very relaxing and restful.” 

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