Animal therapy — bringing people together with animals — has many positive effects on people, including placing a person in the moment.
As I watch an elder-home resident pet Opie, one of our traveling goat ambassadors, I see the person’s eyes engaging with him and they begin to respond to his movements and expressions. Touch is also a powerful healer, and the action of petting an animal is calming to both Opie and the elder.
I’ve seen elders shy away from the visits: “Why is someone here with a goat?” But the next time around, there they are, giving Opie back rubs.
These visits to elder-home residents also encourage an environment of opening up the quietest of people, inspiring them to engage and share stories of their lives.
We also bring elders to our farm, to sit among the animals and nature and just “be more donkey.”
What is being more donkey, you ask? I’ll explain with a story.
One day, I was doing barn chores, with my head full of the day’s deadlines and problems waiting for solutions. I was anxious to get back to my home office and just get it all over with.
In my impatience, I was trying to get one of my donkeys to move faster to get him to another paddock, but if you’ve been with donkeys, even trained donkeys, you know they do everything very slowly, at a lovely donkey pace, one hoof at a time.
He stopped to stand like a statue. I sighed an impatient sigh, and I impatiently suggested he get going. While his ears pricked backwards to hear my plea, they then returned forward toward the lower pasture, causing me to look in the same direction. I stood with him in silence admiring the beautiful fog blanket over the lower field, with the white dots of sheep peeking out. My donkey looked up at the sky, and there was a flock of ducks in formation flying out of the fog, gone in seconds.
I never would have experienced that beautiful moment if it hadn’t been for that donkey slowing me down to his pace, telling me with pricked ears to stop and listen and look. And feel.
With each elder guest that visits, there are many more donkey moments. A 100-year-old gentleman went up to each and every animal and slowly and deliberately ran his hands down their backs, without saying a word, but his smile and the way he looked into each animal’s eyes was visceral for all of us.
Some of our animals are natural healers, the llama being one. She is an especially personable llama, giving kisses. She will innately position herself near the elders that seem more vulnerable, or sad, or lost. Her long neck must emit huge amounts of compassion, for the elders love to stroke her as they sit quietly by her side — being more llama.
(Katherine Dunn, of Apifera Farm in Bremen, is an artist and a writer. Apifera is a nonprofit that takes in elderly and special-needs animals and shares them with elder people. Visit katherinedunn.us to learn more.)