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Animals & Seniors... Keep Each Other Young

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At Rotary House, a Fort McMurray seniors lodge that accommodates those who no longer live on their own, one difficulty for some of its citizens is no longer being able to continue owning beloved pets. Luckily for these particular residents, several times a month they get visits from local dogs and one cat.

“I love animals,” says Bude Stuve, who has lived at Rotary House for eight years. Stuve, who predominantly uses a wheelchair, looks forward mostly to visits with the PAWs dogs - where he can hand out treats or toss a ball. “It’s very much relaxing and de-stresses me.”

Bud, Marge and Josie watch Boomer, and talk about dogs from their lives. Bud’s small, white dog, named Jupiter, used to go everywhere with him - even to work, where he was always welcomed.

Josie, who has been at Rotary House for two years, grew up on a farm and was always surrounded by animals.

“They like to be around you,” she explains. “You talk to an animal and it’s like they know what you’re saying.”

By this time, Noah has settled himself on a couch and Josie sits beside him stroking his head and under his chin. He closes his eyes appreciatively and bows his head to accept the petting.

Past research has shown petting animals can lower blood pressure in what is known as the “pet effect.” A study conducted in 1988 looked at 60 male and female students who were interacting with dogs. The results? The subjects’ blood pressure levels were the lowest while petting the dogs, higher while talking to the dog and even higher when speaking with those conducting the research.

“Touch appeared to be the major component of the pet effect…” reads the study.

Those who are lucky enough to pet their own dogs on a daily basis have chosen to share that opportunity with the community.

PAWs for People, which is short for Pets and Wellness for People, has been in Fort McMurray for some time.

In 1989, two locals, along with their dogs, began visiting seniors in Aurabasca House and the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.

The program grew to 10 members, but dissolved in 1995.

Four years later, Brian Jackson and Marsha Smart joined the Northern Alberta Pet Therapy Association and participated in a formal training program. More volunteers joined the group over time.

In 2002 PAWs was established as the need for a local training program was realized. Today the program requires volunteers to undergo a criminal record check, participate in a training weekend and fulfill a certain number of volunteer hours annually.

Rotary House, the geriatric unit at Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, the Bridges Program and Keyano College all currently receive visits from the PAWs teams.

The program receives funding from United Way through the Canadian Mental Health Association - Fort McMurray. It’s a vital service for those who are lonely as well as those who may be suffering a mental illness.

“The benefits are encouraging social interaction and contact; it also offers a feeling of unconditional love,” says CMHA executive director, Karen MacMillan. “In adults it provides motivation, a sense of happiness by looking forward to the visit, it helps to make an effort to get up to engage or interact.

“In the elderly, where cognitive ability is affected, animals are beneficial as they stimulate on an emotional level where they feel more at ease. It also helps to keep their attention in the moment or an ability to keep contact with reality.”

It’s not just seniors who benefit from therapy pets. Soldiers returning from war and suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as others who have suffered traumatic events can benefit from the companionship of a therapy animal.

According to, historically, the United States used animal-assisted healing for psychiatric patients - providing benefit to both children and adults.

Animals are a wealth of stimulation for those they visit. Their soft or coarse fur can be felt running through fingers; their wet noses and tongues leave marks on hands and faces they are sniffing; and they can physically engage residents whether it’s through grooming, giving treats or throwing a ball.

PAWs coordinator, Koralee Samaroden, has been involved with the group for five years.

Growing up, she witnessed the effect animals had on humans, thanks to her family’s travelling petting zoo.

“Once we were at Heritage Park and a man in his 90s sat with the sheep and cried because he missed seeing his sheep from his hometown,” she recalls. “I got involved because I saw the power that an animal had on a person’s life. Animals don’t judge us. Touching an animal can calm a person - it’s hard to explain, it just is powerful.”

Currently the non-profit has 18 teams - and they are making a difference in the lives of those they visit.

“Many (seniors in homes) don’t get visitors - the animal can be a catalyst to the conversation and the human side of the team can have a friendly conversation with the client,” says Samaroden. “Every team brings a unique perspective to the program; therefore the team can use their strengths to help others.”

One example of this is Samaroden’s border collies. A working breed, it would be difficult for this type of dog to sit patiently while being pet. However, they are enthusiastic about showing off their tricks and playing ball.

The visits are good for the animals too not only do they get the opportunity to get out of the house, meet new people, and eat lots of treats, but they learn how to be comfortable in different situations.

Noah, who is 14-years-old but doesn’t seem even half his age, is an example of this. His owner, Amy Donald, says the cat has learned to rest easy away from home.

Once a cat that might be timid in areas outside his house -- he struts around at his visits, jumps onto laps and accepts treats. When he’s tired of the attention he’ll curl up on a comfortable piece of furniture, where someone can settle beside him to continue lavishing attention on him.

For Donald, volunteering with PAWs was a great way to give back to the seniors in the community.

“I got involved because my grandparents live in retirement homes in Ontario and I don’t get to visit as often as I would if I lived there,” she explains. “To see them get excited when Noah arrives, that makes it all worth it. There is a certain group of people who like Noah -- the cat people,” says Donald. “They love to tell me about the cats and dogs they had throughout their lives.”

Melissa Hardy joined PAWs with two hopes: of spending more time with her dog and getting involved in the community.

Boomer, a large black and brown mixed-breed dog, may be overwhelming to some residents - but he’s a sweet dog who can quickly be found sprawled out on the floor awaiting a belly rub.

“Not only is petting or brushing his fur great physical therapy, he also helps people feel more comfortable and often incites a lot of conversation,” she says. “Even for people that don’t always want to pet Boomer, or who might be afraid of dogs, there is always a conversation to be had about his size or his fluffy fur or wagging tail.”

Whether it’s a cat or dog, senior or child, therapy animals have proven helpful to those needing that extra love and sensations they can’t get from another human. And for that, many locals are grateful.

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Holly Hashimi has lived in Fort McMurray since 2010 and doesn't plan to leave any time soon. She attended SAIT in Calgary and obtained a Journalism Arts degree and worked in the media for over seven years. In addition to travelling she loves cross stitching and animals. She volunteers with Pets and Wellness for People - taking her best friend Asia around the city to visit those who are in need of some stress relief.