Therapy ponies help dementia sufferers by bringing ‘comfort and joy’

  • Shetland ponies are being invited into care homes to provide therapy for dementia patients and other residents.

    Elaine Sangster and her husband John — who run Therapy Ponies Scotland — dedicate most of their week to visiting homes and hospices throughout the country with some of their herd of 15 ponies.

    The visits have been embraced by local authorities, including NHS Grampian, who say the Shetlands are an important support tool for those suffering with dementia.

    “The interaction with the ponies often helps stimulate a positive social response from people living with dementia and minimises stress and distress. The animals provide comfort, joy and a sense of excitement,” said Lyn Irvine, nurse consultant for Alzheimer Scotland and NHS Grampian

    “The difference the animals make can be quite remarkable – stimulating positive engagement and therapeutic interaction through full conversations about the animals.

    “That’s really precious – both for the person living with dementia and for their families and carers.”

    Elaine and John spend days preparing the ponies for visits, to ensure they are immaculately clean.

    “We prepare them so they are teddy bear soft to touch and smell beautiful and people are bowled over by them,” Elaine said. “They have ‘whoops-a-daisy’ bags on them just in case, so there is no mess — they are great for getting people reminiscing and discussing and we don’t want that wiped out by a memory of them pooing on the carpet!”

    Elaine said that the ponies had been a huge hit everywhere they had visited, and they often received “repeat bookings before we are out of the door”.

    “At first the homes are not really sure what to expect, but once we have had our first visit the staff are usually delighted by the reactions, the whole place comes alive,” she said. “The relatives often pile in as well when they know they are coming.”

    The diminutive ponies will even take the lift to visit patients who are unable to access communal areas.

    “You walk into their bedroom with a pony and their faces just light up,” Elaine said. “Sometimes you see people who never come out of their room sprinting down the corridor with their zimmer frames!”

    While most of the residents are just keen to cuddle and pet the ponies, Elaine said they were very effective at drawing people out.

    “Sometimes we have carers in pieces because they see a resident talking to us who doesn’t normally speak,” she explained. “Something about the ponies can unlock conversation — they might tell us they worked with ponies when they were younger or their father was a farmer. The carers can’t believe it as it’s information they have never revealed.”

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    Elaine and John regularly use eight of their ponies for visits, swapping the ponies around so they “can each live a normal life and don’t get bored”.

    She said the ponies “seemed to know their job” and relished the attention, loving “being tickled and cuddled”.

    Most of the herd have been owned from foals, giving them ample chance to prepare for their role.

    “We take them lots of places. We bring all of them in at night so they have contact with us twice a day and we get them used to as many things as we can. It’s also only us that handle them — we don’t have staff — so they trust us,” Elaine explained.

    “Every time we go into a care home people can’t believe how well behaved and calm they are — we are so proud of them we could burst.

    “People ask what therapy we give,” she added. “We say we bring in the ponies and they make you smile. There is no better therapy than that.”

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