They’re off! The trailblazing Connected Horse Project got underway this week, testing whether guided engagement with horses might strengthen the trust, cooperation and communication between persons living with dementia and their care partners.
The pilot study is the brainchild of Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Paula Hertel who coordinate the project under the guidance of Stanford University in Palo Alto and in conjunction with Stanford’s Red Barn Leadership Program.
“We wanted to develop a program to support those with dementia (especially those who are “young” at onset) and their care partners – spouses, adult children, other relatives, and friends – as they begin living with this diagnosis,” Paula stated.
“Over 5.3 million Americans (200,000 of whom are under the age of 65) are living with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia and that number is expected to grow by 40% over the next decade.”
Dementia is a term that describes a wide range of symptoms of progressive brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, that are characterized by a decline in memory, judgment, and other thinking skills that reduce a person’s ability to perform self-care and everyday activities.
Nancy is founder and principal of Alzheimer’s Care Associates, headquartered in the Sacramento region. She is also a gerontologist and member of the Gerontology faculty at California State University Sacramento. Paula holds a master’s degree in social work. Her consulting business, Senior Care Consult, is headquartered in the San Francisco East Bay Area.
The women are long-time friends and colleagues. They have advocated for quality care for those with dementia as consultants to the senior living industry for over 20 years. And both are avid equestrians.
“As equestrians,” Nancy noted, “we know there’s a very real healing presence about horses. There are also in-depth studies that show an almost immediate drop in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol with horse therapy. We hope our project is a way persons with dementia and their care partners can stay engaged, learn new coping skills, and reduce stress, anxiety and depression.”
“The need is there. We all know the numbers,” Paula said. “Every caregiver I’ve met has wanted to do the best job he or she can and that sometimes is hard. What really excites Nancy and I is the hope of giving them more options for care – choices that are less formal, but as effective.”
Horses are the most popularly used animals for therapy because they have the ability to work collaboratively and adapt to change. They are prey animals but have survived by cooperating in herds. Paulal pointed out, “You can’t push a 1200-pound animal around to get it to do what you want. Working with horses provides an easy way for people to understand that force may not be the best approach for getting someone to do something.”
The Connected Horse Project enlisted assistance with the study from Jacqueline Hartman, program co-founder and lead facilitator of the Red Barn Leadership Program, which is in the University’s Athletics Department. Jacqueline said, “We will adapt our curriculum for these participants and give them opportunities to lead the horses. The person with dementia and his or her care partner will experience how their own interpersonal skills and dynamics affect the horses, and, hopefully, gain strategies to be communicate and cooperate better together.”
Dolores Gallagher Thompson from Stanford University School of Medicine will serve as the project’s principal investigator; Liz Landsverk, M.D., principal of Elder Consult Geriatric Medicine in Burlingame, is the study’s Medical Advisor; and Elke Tekin, co-founder of The ElderHub, a virtual community providing education and elder care resources for San Francisco Bay Area residents, will assist.
The Connected Horse Project has the support of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada. Coordinators are actively seeking funds and sponsorships for their project through Go Fund Me / Connected Horse. Those interested in participating in the future phases of the study, can learn more and complete an inquiry card at connectedhorse.com/contact.Top