December 31st, 2010 at 11:59 am
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Pet Therapy in Eldercare is Culturally Sensitive

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

While some caregivers and nursing home personnel share magical stories about various pet and elder interactions in nursing homes and caring at home circumstances, the success of pet-elder interactions is also culturally influenced. It would be shortsighted for those of us who are unpaid or paid caregivers to assume otherwise. As Dr. Stephen Covey has said, “Seek first to understand.” Dr. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People easily applies to caregiving.

Understanding Cultural Influences in Eldercare: Pets and Elders

In some cultures, there are animals that are revered, whereas other animals may be designated as “unclean.” Even if a cultural does not ascribe to such extreme views of animals – or pets – there are significant differences in how some individuals may choose to interact with pets or other animals.

Some cultural worldviews embrace scurrying rats as far as the eye can see – alongside humans of all ages. In some parts of the US and some other Western countries, rats are not welcome into our living or moving spaces. Rats may be viewed as disease carriers, including based on hantavirus deaths in the US, and more. Rats are neither welcome, sacred, nor are they cute in my home, neighborhood, or anywhere I have ever lived. If only for hantavirus reasons, I doubt that rats would have a red carpet rolled out for them in US hospitals, clinics and/or nursing homes. I welcome all input to the contrary, if factual.

Western Culture and Household Pets

In addition to some exotic pets, in the US, and in some other places around the globe, cats or dogs are common household pets. Dogs are also trained as seeing-eye-dogs for individuals who are blind, whom they will also protect if someone were to attempt to harm the blind individual in the seeing-eye-dog’s care.

How dogs and cats are treated within households is also subject to cultural worldviews. Some individuals have learned from a young age that dogs should never be allowed on a bed, sofa, or table. Some individuals are loathe to feed their dogs from the same plates on which humans in the family eat their food. Some individuals are content with and encourage dogs slurpy “kisses.” Others don’t.

My mother loves some dogs – from a distance. Mostly, she loves to observe their playful antics as she waves and talks to them from a distance. Any closer, and my mother starts to physically squirm, pull her body away, and become increasingly nervous. For Mom’s elder profile, up close and personal pets will never be her first choice.

In eldercare, choice matters. If it doesn’t matter, it should. You really don’t want my mother wielding her cane to protect herself from a playful dog or cat – Ninja-style! Mom would not be trying to harm the dog or cat – just keep the pet at a culturally perceived safe distance.

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