Anyone with a family member who has dementia knows the struggle and heartbreak that comes along with the disease. Not only is it incredibly hard to see a beloved person lose their memory, it is also especially painful to see them suffer emotionally as a result of that memory loss.
That's why it's worth paying attention to a new Northern California study that's setting major goals to improve the lives of dementia patients and their loved ones.
And it's all about taking care of horses. Yes, horses. At the Connected Horse Project, the participants groom and pet and walk the animals, tuning into their moods and needs.
The study's co-founder Paula Hertel said that this serves a dual purpose of helping the person with dementia build confidence in caring for another being, and helping the patients' loved ones build understanding of the importance of their care.
"It’s a nonjudgmental, mutual respect with the horses," Hertel said. "When care partners learn to break down those dynamics for themselves, they also start to become better care partners."
A report from the first phase with 10 participants found that they were more energized and showed more positive facial expressions after the workshop.
An area woman named Diane had her husband, who has dementia, try out the workshop, and she said he had let his guard down and was nuzzling with the adorable animals by the third day.
“The horses are pure present,” she said. “They don’t worry about who they’re going to see the next day or what everyone else is working on. They play when they are playful, they sleep when they’re tired, they eat when they’re hungry. They’re incredible teachers in how to be.”
If the second phase goes just as well, the program will likely expand beyond Northern California.
"We want to keep people feeling hopeful and optimistic, so that as they move through the disease they can still feel like a whole person," Hertel said.