Dementia & Multi-Species Caring: Current Practice & Future Possibilities

Since the word was first-used within modern day psychiatry to describe the abolition of the thinking faculty (Pinel 1806), we have come to understand ‘dementia’ and its affects in largely human-centric terms.  Dementia, so our common-sense understanding goes, is condition that affects (only) humans and the art of caring in dementia is a uniquely human form of enterprise.  Yet, developments across a diverse range of academic and practice disciplines – including biological and social sciences, medical humanities, philosophy & ethics and applied health & social care practice – are increasingly forcing us to re-think our conventional, and somewhat anthropocentric, approaches to dementia.

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‘Maple’ the Goat: One of the nonhuman animals who participated in the Dementia & Multi-Species Caring Workshop at UWS, funded by the BSG. #findingmaple (Pic: CareInspectorate)

Many people affected by dementia live with non-human companions (e.g. dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens) and innovations in dementia care are creating opportunities for people to forge new caring relationships with members of different species during their dementia journeys.  Indeed, early research suggests that such ‘animal-assisted’ forms of caring in dementia have clear potential to facilitate wellbeing (e.g. Filan & Llewellyn-Jones, 2006).  Parallel to developments in dementia care, research within veterinary medicine is highlighting important connections in disease pathology between Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) in humans and Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome(CDS) in non-humans. Such discoveries are leading to increasing awareness, within biomedicine, that advancing understanding of the latter may aid understandings of the former (e.g. Youssef, Capucchio, Rofina et al., 2016).

Within philosophy, ethics and the medical humanities, scholarship at the intersections of disability studies and animal studies is highlighting important connections between ableismand speciesism as mutually re-enforcing practices of oppression – highlighted, for example, across the Going to the Dogs workshop series, hosted by Dr Ryan Sweet at the University of Leeds in 2018 Feminist-inspired philosophies of science are destabilising Enlightenment-based understandings of Personhood (which has historically positioned people with dementia as ‘less than’ the human ideal), and championing relational and symbiotic approaches to human subjectivity, as well as multi-species forms of ethical ‘response-ability’ (e.g. Barad, 2007; Haraway, 2008; 2016; Gruen, 2015).

Despite clear potential for these bodies of work to lead to new ways of responding to the challenge of dementia in the 21st century, there have been few attempts to develop a distinctly ‘multi-species’ perspective.  With generous funding from the British Society of Gerontology’s Small Events scheme, we decided to facilitate a one-day workshop so that we could begin to explore ways in which we can understand caring in dementia through a multi-species lens.

Fifty-eight people attended the ‘Dementia & Multi-Species Caring: Current Practice & Future Possibilities’ workshop, on 28th May 2019 at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) Lanarkshire Campus, which overlook the picturesque Campsie Fells. Participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds – including, academic research, health & social care practice, funding, policy-making, animal welfare and lived expertise.  Our programme of speakers was equally diverse:

Professor Debbie Tolson, Director of UWS’s Alzheimer Scotland Centre for Policy & Practice, opened the workshop and reflected upon the rapid rise of animal assisted interventions (AAIs) in dementia in recent years, and questioned whether recent developments in robotic forms of ‘animal’ companionship could ever equate with the experience of human-animal connection.

Fiona Corner, together with Henry and Anne Rankin, provided an overview of the Dementia Dog project – a pioneering initiative in Scotland in which dogs undergo bespoke training prior to either being placed with couples living with dementia in community settings, or visiting people affected by dementia in a range of residential care environments.  Henry and Anne Rankin’s moving account of how living with Uno (their Dementia Dog) has affected their shared dementia journey was one of the real highlights of the day.

Dr Jack-Waugh (UWS) – together with Julie Garton (NHS D&G), Mandy Cowan (Alzheimer Scotland) Alison Mann (Leaning with Horses) and Juanita Wilson (Mossburn Community Farm) – presented an emerging programme of psycho-social, education-based sessions currently being developed at Mossburn Community Farm; a charitable organisation that has provided sanctuary for unwanted, abused and neglected animals across the South of Scotland since the mid-1980s.

Following a delicious vegetarian/vegan lunch, Heather Clements (UWS) presented from her doctoral research, exploring the impact of fish aquaria (and digital fish tanks) on health and wellbeing across a range of settings, including residential care homes for older people.    Heather’s presentation provided a useful turn in our attentions, from discussing active forms of animal assistance in dementia, to exploring how more passive forms of human-animal relations may affect health and wellbeing.

Mary Morris (Care Inspectorate) and Jim Melville (Campbell Snowdon House) followed Heather’s presentation by co-presenting Animal Magic– a 2018 report from Scotland’s Care Inspectorate that links explicitly, human-animal companionship to the Scottish Government’s newly-developed National Care Standards.  Jim’s description of how he and his management team have sought to provide residents of Campbell Snowdon House with opportunities to interact with animals (including setting up a mini smallholding for one resident) was an inspiring account of what is possible when services are willing and able to innovate.

Last but by no means least, Lorena Sordo from Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute (the home of ‘Dolly the Sheep’) presented from her doctoral project, which explores Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) amongst elderly cats.  Making her work accessible to a non-veterinary audience was no small challenge, yet Lorena’s presentation of the similarities and differences between CDS and human-forms of dementia provided a fascinating insight into non-human experiences of progressive neurocognitive disease.

It would have been somewhat strange for an event like this not to include (non-human) animals in its proceedings.  As such, supporting our speakers was a trained Dementia Dog (Uno); a tank of tropical fishes; a turtle (Tessa); and Maple the goat (yes… a goat).  As you might imagine, completing the risk assessment for this workshop was not a task for the faint of heart and it was good to see a university that openly prides itself on ‘daring to be different’ being willing to host such a multi-species meeting within its walls.

However, whilst there is considerable interest in human-animal relations in dementia, finding a shared language and common-ground across such diverse fields of research, practice and experience is not without its considerable challenges.  The benefits of facilitating multi-species relations in dementia are increasingly becoming apparent, yet these come with difficult questions regarding the standing and status of animals vis their human counterparts.  As such, this workshop represents the first in what we hope will be a series of collaborative and stimulating discussions.

You can find out more about the Dementia & Multi-Species Caring: Current Practice & Future Possibilities workshop by following us on twitter (#findingmaple).  We are currently editing a video based on the workshop proceedings.  This will be available via our project website (https://multispeciesdementia.wordpress.com), which is currently under construction.

If you are interested in joining future discussions about dementia and ‘multi-species’ caring, please contact us via our website:

Workshop Organisers: Dr Nick Jenkins (UWS); Dr Anna Jack-Waugh (UWS); Dr Louise Ritchie (UWS) & Julie Garton (NHS D&G).

 

References

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Filan, SL., Llewellyn-Jones, RH. (2006). Animal-assisted therapy for dementia: a review of the literature. International Psychogeriatrics 18(4): 597-611

Gruen, L. (2015). Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relations with Animals. New York: Lantern Books.

Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pinnel, P (1806) A Treatise on Insanity. Sheffield: W.Todd.

Youssef, SA., Capucchio, MT., Rofina, JE., Chambers, JK., Uchida, K., Nakayama, H., Head, E. (2016). Pathology of the Aging Brain in Domestic and Laboratory Animals, and Animal Models of Human