Pet Therapy


Pet Therapy Heals the Soul

Typically, when one thinks of a skilled nursing facility, thoughts of wagging tails, chirping birds and purring cats aren’t top of mind. Now, enter the doors of Shuksan Healthcare Center, a 52-bed skilled nursing and rehabilitation center in Bellingham, and your perception will forever be altered.

With a care philosophy that embraces the natural healing powers of animals, Shuksan Healthcare Center is one of very few facilities in the area that maintain resident pets and incorporate them as part of their residents’ rehabilitation.

“It isn’t uncommon to find a resident throwing a ball for Prince, our black lab, in the courtyard,” said Dale Nakatani, Rehab Manager, Shuksan Healthcare Center. “Not only does Prince love the attention, but our residents get in some quality physical therapy as well.”

This sort of exercise mimics that of real-life activity which feels less institutional and actually enhances the residents’ participation level. If given a choice to workout on the incumbent bike or play fetch with an eager pup, odds are the dog will win every time.

The physical, emotional and psychological benefits of therapy animals for seniors have been widely documented. Caring for a pet can help increase a senior’s self-esteem, while also providing them with an activity that makes them feel useful. Further, studies show that spending just 15 minutes bonding with an animal promotes hormonal changes within the brain. Stress levels drop as the brain produces serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone.

With four resident parakeets, three cats (Toby, Sassy, and Faux), a black lab (Prince) and an aquarium full of exotic fish, Shuksan’s furry and feathered therapy team are a force to be reckoned with. “We’ve witnessed time and time again the healing powers that our animals have on the residents, their loved ones, and our staff,” said Shannon Richardson, Administrator, Shuksan Healthcare Center. “During a vulnerable time, these animals offer a welcome wagon that we simply can’t compete with by providing a feeling of home and comfort to our residents.”

Animals can aide in the lowering of blood pressure, improvement in cardiovascular health and reduction of overall physical pain. In seniors, they can also help improve socialization. An emerging body of research is recognizing just how positive the impact of the human-animal bond is and the effect it has not only on individuals but also community health.

“The human-animal bond is undeniable,” continued Richardson. “It’s not just our residents who reap the benefits of their presence. We’ve had many family members comment on just how much our animals have helped them, especially in the initial stages of admission.”

Imagine coming to visit a loved one who is recovering from a hospital stay at a skilled nursing facility. Apprehension, concern, and nervousness may all be emotions that you feel leading up to and during the visit. Now, imagine that you’re sitting bedside and a friendly Labrador named Prince saunters into the room, tail wagging, and encourages with his eyes that you pet his bulky head. Feeling better yet?

It’s not uncharacteristic to find one of Shuksan’s cats sleeping on the foot of a resident’s bed at night (or during the day). Shuksan is their home, and in their eyes, no bed is off limits! There is a caveat, though. If a resident prefers not to have animals in their room during their time at Shuksan, they can have a gate put at their door to impede any furry visitors.

It is important to note that stringent rules are set in place to ensure the animals are clean, vaccinated, well-trained and screened for appropriate behavior. Further, all visiting animals are required to submit current vaccination records. The safety and well-being of Shuksan’s residents, visitors and staff remain the top priority.

Regardless of your animal preference, one can’t deny the legitimacy of what is being practiced at Shuksan Healthcare Center. They are a textbook example of a skilled nursing facility putting it all out there, showcasing enough love and compassion to care for the residents in which they service, but also the animals that service them right back.

Written by Tina L Kies

NOTE: This was originally published in Bellingham Alive magazine (January 2017 issue)



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