Adoptable puppies help seniors living with dementia, Alzheimer's

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Julia Knight had her dog Lucky, George Lee his cocker spaniel Rusty, and Eileen Jackman raised collies growing up.

Fond memories of their former furry friends replaced whatever hardship these Oyster Bay Senior Campus residents were dealing with when two 12-week-old puppies visited the home care facility earlier this year, triggering the recollections.

The program, which takes place weekly at Harbor House, a part of the senior campus devoted to caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other memory impairments, is made possible by the folks at North Shore Animal League America through its Shelter Pet Outreach Team (SPOT).

Through SPOT, North Shore brings therapy puppies and cats to nursing homes, senior citizen centers and rehabilitation centers like OBSC.

The benefits to these seniors from just a little puppy love are endless, said Shari Leventhal, the director of recreation at Harbor House.

"There's such a difference in their lives," she told ABC News. "We have residents here, they are not speaking, they are not social, they have a lot of mood swings."

PHOTO: Adoptable puppies from North Shore Animal League America visit seniors at the Oyster Bay Senior Campus to raise the spirits of residents living with dementia and Alzheimer's. (ABC News)

But when you put a puppy in their laps, "it turns them into a different person," Leventhal said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, dementia in adults results in changes like memory loss, but also difficulty reasoning, problem-solving and completing complex tasks, which can result in paranoia, agitation and depression. The same can be said for Alzheimer's, including but not limited to forgetting conversations, getting lost in familiar places, and forgetting the names and details about loved ones.

"As soon as you touch a puppy, you start relaxing. They start talking to you, they start having memories of their past, of their dogs when they were growing up and it turns them into a completely different person," she added. "It's a wonderful thing. It's a blessing. We have seen people who are sad, angry, upset and you put a puppy in their lap, and their disposition changes completely."

Leventhal said that people with cases like dementia hold on to memories of the past, for better or worse.

"I love dogs. ... My father used to take any dog home," said Knight, who lives with dementia. She also joked that "My mother [would say] you get him out of here or I'm out!"

PHOTO: Adoptable puppies from North Shore Animal League America visit seniors at the Oyster Bay Senior Campus to raise the spirits of residents living with dementia and Alzheimer's. (ABC News)

For Jackman, who has Alzheimer’s, she couldn't help sharing stories her pups growing up while holding, kissing and singing to one of the adoptable dogs from North Shore.

"I grew up with [dogs]. My mother raised them, I raised them for a little while," she said. "I had a wonderful memory. I had a collie, a big collie. And I went swimming and I went out too far. I was trying to come in and somehow that dog knew it and came out and grabbed me."

She added, "What do I love about dogs? Because they are so affectionate and so protective and so loving. And they give back a lot when you have them."

PHOTO: Adoptable puppies from North Shore Animal League America visit seniors at the Oyster Bay Senior Campus to raise the spirits of residents living with dementia and Alzheimer's. (ABC News)

The stories are endless and the smiles and laughs from these residents fill the room when the dogs from North Shore are visiting.

Other programs at North Shore Animal League America

But North Shore Animal League America does far more than just helping seniors living with memory-related impairments.

The no-kill shelter has other programs like the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, in which students can work with animals to build "calm, caring, confident kids," and the Seniors for Seniors program, where seniors over the age of 60 can adopt a calm, well-trained senior animal to add love to their life.

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