February 20, 1998

Four-legged friends help medical students reach out to elderly

Four-legged friends help medical students reach out to elderly

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VUSM students Mary Austin and Kane Lai, along with Austin's dog Sunny and a very sleepy puppy, pay a visit to Haddie Highland at the Trevecca Health Care Center. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

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Medical Student Emily Thelen and a black lab/chow mix puppy from the Nashville Humane Society provide a little pet therapy to Trevecca Health Care Resident Lila Mae Baldwin. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

It¹s hard to say who benefits most from a new Vanderbilt University School of Medicine outreach project where students use puppies to reach out to elderly residents at a Nashville nursing home.

First, there are the students ‹ many of whom have left their family pets behind because a hectic medical school schedule doesn¹t allow much time for pet care.

Then, there are the puppies, on loan each Wednesday afternoon from the Nashville Humane Society. They snuggle contentedly in the laps of wheelchair-bound elderly residents who stroke their soft fur.

One thing's for sure, though. the nursing home residents sure get a kick out of the project. They benefit not only from the companionship of a pet, but also from rare conversations with young people ‹ the first and second-year students who will someday care for patients just like them.

³They liven up each week when the students come,² said Julie Copeland, assistant activity director at Trevecca Health Care Center. ³It brings back memories of grandchildren and pets. It¹s a real pick-me-up, after spending the rest of the week in a facility with 240 other elderly people.²

Eileen Dauer, a second-year medical student, is spearheading the elective with the help of fellow second-year medical student Laura Stobie and a faculty advisor, Dr. Deborah C. German, associate Dean for Students. Dauer came up with the idea when she started medical school and asked some of her classmates to join her in taking pets to Harris Hillman School, near Vanderbilt.

³It¹s one of those unique projects that benefits everybody," Dauer said. "It gets the dogs out of the shelter to have a chance to do some socializing; it benefits the residents; and it is fun for us because we¹re burned out from classwork and it¹s a good chance to do something beneficial.²

The students spend each Wednesday afternoon at Trevecca through May. They divide into groups of six, with one group having the puppies one week, while the other group socializes with the residents. The following week, the groups switch.

A survey at the end of the elective will compare the reactions of the two groups and find out whether it was easier to talk with the nursing home residents with or without the companionship of animals.

Pet therapy is not a new idea. It has shown promise in hastening the recovery of patients and in improving interaction between groups of people who do not communicate easily.

There are certified pet therapists and dogs who are trained and certified, but Dauer and the group of students use mild-mannered pets from the Nashville Humane Society who are selected by humane society workers who know the dispositions of the dogs.

³Before we officially started the class, I did a literature search and found that a lot of research has already been done on pet therapy, especially pertaining to older folks, psychiatric patients and cardiovascular patients,² Dauer said.

³Research has shown that there are some real health benefits to pet therapy. It keeps blood pressure down and there are various other cardiac risk factors that seem to be diminished with companion animals. Other special parameters are more difficult to quantify. Research has shown that in nursing homes, socialization activity would be increased among the residents who were involved with animals.

"They would make more of an effort to be independent. People who had previously been quiet and confined to their rooms would make an effort to get out more. Just the happiness of knowing that a pet was coming to visit them would give them something to look forward to," Dauer said.

On the students¹ first trip to Trevecca in late January, two black furry puppies, named Gentle Ben and The Wild One, accompanied the group. Sunny, a three-year-old golden retriever owned by second-year student Mary Austin, also came along, but was more interested in licking cake crumbs from the activity room floor than in visiting with the residents.

One resident, Mary Thomas, especially liked Gentle Ben, who slept with his nose buried under a wool blanket in her lap. ³I love dogs. I had one like this a long time ago,² she said. ³He reminds me of that dog. You¹re a good boy,² she said, smiling at the dog.

Dauer said the first visit went well.

³Pets are such great ice breakers. You can just stand back and watch the faces of the residents light up and see what a difference they make,² she said.

Both Dauer and Stobie think the pet therapy elective will help them know how to communicate with future elderly patients. They both agree that a traditional medical education offers limited exposure to nursing home residents.

³I really expect that as the semester goes on, there will be less emphasis on the dog, and we¹ll develop more skills talking with the residents,² Stobie said. ³That¹s important because a lot of us don¹t have much experience talking to people who are several decades older than us. That generation gap needs a bridge. I think perfecting that skill will be very helpful to us.²

Dauer said it is encouraging that the medical school administration is open to student-initiated community outreach projects.

³You feel like you have so much freedom here to pursue interests of your own that may not traditionally be included in a medical school curriculum,² Dauer said.

She said the group is excited that German serves as the faculty sponsor of the elective class.

³We went to her to ask for ideas for a faculty sponsor and she¹s a fellow dog lover,² Dauer said. ³She asked to be our sponsor. You can¹t ask for a better stamp of approval than having a dean lead the class.²