Dementia affects about 50 million people worldwide, and is expected to reach 82 million in 2030. Unlike other global health priorities, dementia itself is not a disease. It is a term describing symptoms such as a decline in memory and other thinking skills severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for over half of all cases, followed by vascular dementia. It’s a condition with no cure, whose causes are variable and still under research. Those with dementia are not the only ones affected by its symptoms.
“When a loved one is affected with Alzheimer’s disease, it creates a lot of stress on their family, particularly their primary caregiver, which is usually their spouse but can be an adult child or somebody else, even, in the family,” said Dr. Sarah Farias, an associate professor of neurology at UC Davis. “And so one of the aims of the program is to facilitate communication between the person with dementia and the caregiver and then also to help alleviate caregiver stress.”
The Connected Horse Project offers pioneering equine-assisted workshops for people living with early stage dementia. It is kicking off 2018 by partnering with Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center to offer two new four-week workshop sessions. The workshops are based on the success and popularity of a pilot program conducted in fall 2017 with Xenophon.
ROCKLIN, CA (January 26, 2018) The Connected Horse Project offers pioneering equine-assisted workshops for people living with early stage dementia. It is kicking off 2018 by partnering with Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center to offer two new four-week workshop sessions. The workshops are based on the success and popularity of a pilot program conducted in fall 2017 with Xenophon.
Connected Horse, a leader in equine assisted interventions for people affected by dementia, has wrapped up its 2017 Equine Assisted Workshops and research at University of California, Davis with promising results. Over the course of two years, over 70 people have participated in the research workshops and its community programs. The unique approach of both people with early stage dementia and their care partners participating together has proven to be a powerful tool for participants. The overall whelming response has been that experiencing something new together is exciting and it helps erase the roles and old patterns. The horses have unconditional acceptance and don’t judge people by a label or a diagnosis.
Longtime California friends Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Paula Hertel were already specialists in elder care — and both avid equestrians — when they developed a bold idea. They wanted to combine their unique interests to improve the lives of people facing dementia. The result from these friends, after a great deal of study, is Connected Horse, a series of facilitated workshops aimed at helping early-stage dementia patients and their care partners experience what the women call a horse’s healing presence.
“As equestrians, we know there’s a very real healing presence about horses,” Anzelmo wrote on their blog. “After a bad day, all we have to do is go out in nature, ‘be’ with our horses, relax, and just feel better. There are in-depth studies of the effects of equine work on the stress hormone cortisol, mostly with adolescents, which show [that] with horse therapy, there’s an almost immediate drop in cortisol levels.”
For years, equine-assisted therapy has been a staple in helping veterans cope with their physical war-related injuries and struggles, their struggles with post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), and in helping disabled children build physical strength and create emotional connections. Now researchers are turning to horses once more to help those affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia conditions.
During an Alzheimer’s caregiver support group meeting, Charlotte Driver came across a flier for horse-involved therapy. Having cared for both her father and father-in-law during their struggles with Alzheimer’s disease, and caring for her mother, also diagnosed with the disease, Driver had no illusions about the disease and its impact on families. So, now that her husband Richard was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a condition that precedes Alzheimer’s, Driver was open to any therapy that might slow the progression of Richard’s eventual cognitive decline.
After nearly 40 years of marriage, Charlotte Driver is confronting one of life’s biggest challenges — losing her connection to her husband, Richard, as he gradually loses his memory. Diagnosed with early onset dementia, it’s only a matter of time before he develops Alzheimer’s disease.
Determined to stave off the disease for as long as possible, the Drivers enrolled in a unique program aimed at harnessing the healing power of horses to improve the quality of life for people affected by dementia and their care partners. They visited the Center for Equine Health (CEH) at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine last fall, along with six other couples, to participate in a research project that grew out of a collaboration with the UC Davis School of Medicine and The Connected Horse Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of all those affected by dementia.
Over the course of three weeks, the Drivers joined the others in five-hour workshops designed to gradually introduce the couples to the horses. For Charlotte, it was an entirely novel experience; she had never touched a horse. But Richard was excited about being around horses again. As a teenager, he helped a neighbor care for his horses.
“They can really read your emotions,” Richard said. “Being around them brought back a lot of happy memories. I’m more conscious of my environment and my emotions while with horses.”
And that’s one of the main goals of the project — helping the patient and care giver get in touch with themselves and each other.
A quiet woman who had advocated for the underserved until the effects of her dementia forced her retirement, Maria walks slowly into the barn with her care partner. Axle, a large bay horse, pops his head over the stall door to greet the strangers. Maria approaches Axle, who is at least 10 times her weight.
The workshop facilitator, who knows the power of the human-horse connection, brings them closer together. In only a few steps they are face to face. Axle leans sideways to rest his head on Maria’s shoulder and breathes.
The barn is silent. Maria is motionless. Then she smiles and, for that moment, it is okay that she can no longer speak.
This is the power of The Connected Horse Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by dementia. It was founded by two of CALA’s board members, Paula Hertel with Senior Living Consult, and Nancy Schier Anzelmo with Alzheimer’s Care Associates. We have shared news and information about Connected Horse here on the blog and in the CALA News & Views magazine. And we are happy to share more!
A groundbreaking program that has helped people with dementia by having them interact with horses will launch at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine at the end of this month after a test run at Stanford University.
The veterinary school, the UC Davis School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the nonprofit group Connected Horse will collaborate on a clinical trial, which will pair people undergoing early stage dementia and mild cognitive impairment and their caregivers with horses in the hopes of improving the patients’ demeanor and communication skills.