Animals can have a powerful impact on our day-to-day lives . . . they can have an even stronger impact in memory care.

By Dr. Frank W. Rees, Jr., AIA, LEED AP; Michelle Clark, IIDA, LEED AP and Ashley Roberts,CPSM

When Joanie Rees moved into Silverado Valley Ranch, Buddy Rees, her ten-year-old Blue Heeler moved in with her. Buddy continued his job of looking after Joanie around the clock.

While the benefits of animal assisted therapy in the senior living environment have been documented for decades, Silverado Senior Living, operator of Valley Ranch, is one of the few operators in the nation to actively include “Pets-in-Residence” in its philosophy of care.

“Pets are an integral part of our lives,” explains Rachel Nelson, Valley Ranch Administrator. “The inclusion of pets in the community facilitates the perception of Valley Ranch as a family home, rather than an institutional environment.”

All Silverado communities maintain a minimum of one pet per 25 residents, but in many cases, the ratio is much higher. Valley Ranch’s 56 residents enjoy the company of more than 10 animals: three dogs, three cats, two birds, two guinea pigs and an array of fish. While many of these are “house pets” some, like Buddy, were brought by residents.

Although Valley Ranch does not maintain quantitative data on their pet therapy program, anecdotal evidence suggests the powerful impact that animals have on the community’s residents and staff. In addition to providing a sense of purpose and a source of companionship for the residents, the pet program creates operational value.

Creating a sense of purpose

Nelson believes that pets create a sense of purpose for residents, who take great pride in feeding and caring for the animals. In addition to conducting regular “Pet Club” gatherings — which Nelson humorously describes as resembling “Noah’s Ark” — Valley Ranch’s staff help the residents feed, groom, and walk the pets as appropriate to the animals’ care needs.

Residents often form strong bonds with the pets. One resident has grown particularly fond of the two house guinea pigs and checks on them several times each day. Often residents can easily recall the names of the house pets even when they are struggling to remember the names of staff or family members.

The Immeasurable Power of Companionship

As dementia progresses, residents increasingly benefit from the unconditional love and affection given by Valley Ranch’s Pets-in-Residence. Confusion and disorientation from dementia can be alleviated through touch’s power to convey emotion nonverbally. Joy is created with the simple swish of a tail or push of a paw.

Instinctively aware of when a resident is nearing the end of life, Silverado’s animals often provide companionship for the resident and their family members. Bo, one of Valley Ranch’s dogs, and Titan, a housecat, regularly visit and remain by the resident’s side almost continuously during their final days, Occasionally, small antics such as the harmonious snoring of both resident and Bo inspires a moment of spontaneous laughter and lifts the spirits of the family members who have gathered to say goodbye.

Operational Value

Nelson notes that the family environment created by having pets at Silverado aids in recruiting and retention. The way a job candidate reacts to and interacts with the house animals is an invaluable tool for measuring the potential new hire’s compatibility with the community.

Resident pets also aid in the community’s marketing efforts. They help relieve the stress of family members who are considering Valley Ranch as a home for their loved one and increase the perceived value of the community. Ultimately, the inclusion of Pets-in-Residence at Silverado’s communities is a reflection of the company’s overall approach to Alzheimer’s care. Silverado is devoted to improving residents’ quality of life by providing as much freedom as possible.

“Pets-in-Residence can be a difficult system to manage without the proper programs, but with them, it runs itself,” Nelson said. “We don‘t want it to be a distraction, but part of our natural living environment.”

Valley Ranch Administrator Rachel Nelson kneels down with Joanie Rees and two of the

communities pets-­in-­residence, Lucky and Buddy.

Joanie Rees, Dr. Frank Rees and Valley Ranch Administrator Rachel Nelson with

pets-­in-­residence, Buddy and Lucky.

About the author — Dr. Frank Rees is the husband of Joanie Rees who moved to Silverado Valley Ranch along with their dog Buddy in 2011. An architect at REES Associates, Inc., his firm designed the Silverado Valley Ranch community. Michelle Clark is an interior designer at REES. Ashley Roberts is a marketing coordinator at Perkins+Will.