Sunday, 13 July 2008

Take me home

Enid Blyton succumbed to it, as did Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson and Iris Murdoch. Alzheimer’s disease is a thief of memory, reason and soul. But assistance is on its way with the introduction of the very first Alzheimer’s Aid Dog. Ori Golan investigates.

When Polly is out with her owner, Reuven, she looks like any other collie out walking with its owner, but Polly is a very unique dog: she is the first working Alzheimer’s Aid Dog,
Reuven, 62, married with children, suffers from early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. His symptoms include orientation loss, which means he frequently gets lost when outdoors, and decline in short-term memory. He starts conversations and then suddenly forgets what he was talking about. In the first stages of his disease Reuven would stay in bed for long periods; he had little wish to go out and was suffering from depression.

Polly is the first dog in the world to be trained specifically to improve the quality of life for an Alzheimer's patient.

The Alzheimer’s Aid Dog is the result of a pioneering project carried out in Israel by Yariv Ben-Yosef, an accomplished dog trainer, and social worker Daphna Golan-Shemesh. It was a meeting of minds: Ben-Yosef trains therapy dogs to assist individuals with a range of special needs – including sufferers of diabetics, epilepsy and autism – and Golan-Shemesh is the founder of a geriatric home for sufferers of dementia.

"What you have to understand", says Ben-Yosef, "is that in the first stages of the disease – which can last up to 8 years – those who suffer from Alzheimer’s are aware of what is happening them and it effects them emotionally. They feel terrible loneliness, frustration, anger and helplessness. These dogs give their owners a sense of independence and enhance their quality of life in extraordinary ways. They actually help slow down the process of the disease because it keeps the person active, makes them more attentive mentally and allows them to conduct a social life and maintain a meaningful routine."

Poly has been trained specifically to suit Reuven’s needs. Whenever they are outdoors and he becomes confused or disoriented, Reuven gives Polly the command ‘home’ and she leads him back home. She not only knows to take him home when he becomes disorientated, but also guides him around obstacles, such as curbs and manholes, because anxiety can often deprive Alzheimer’s sufferers from their pedestrian skills.

The biggest challenge, says Ben-Yosef, was finding the right dog for the task. "We tried many breeds, until we got Polly, a collie shorthair that came to us from Finland. These dogs seemed appropriate for Alzheimer's because they have a calm nature, are highly intelligent and sociable, with an excellent sense of smell and good spatial sense."

At home, Polly is there to protect Reuven from domestic hazards. If she picks up the smell of gas, she will press a distress button which alerts the family, in case Reuven has forgotten to turn off the gas in the kitchen. Like many people suffering from dementia, Reuven relies on medication, some of which causes dizziness and even fainting. In the event that he falls over at home, Polly knows to activate the distress button to summon help; outdoors, she will respond with a volley of shrill barks which will activate an electronic device on her collar and send an SMS message to the family. They can then locate the pair using a specially designed GPS navigation system.

One of the most impressive aspect of her training, is that if they are far from home, Polly knows to take Reuven to the last place they had been. If, for example, they are on holiday, she will lead him back to the hotel where they are staying. A few months ago, Reuven took a bus to visit a friend in a certain city. When he was ready to go back home he started walking. An hour and a half later he found himself in another city and had no idea where he was. Sensing his confusion, Polly brought him back to his friend’s house, from where he was able to seek assistance to get back home.

The special bond between Reuven and Polly, says Ben-Yosef is astounding. In the two years they have been working together, the two have become inseparable. He can now once again pick up his grandchildren from nursery school without worrying about getting lost; in his hometown, he and Polly are well known and people walk up to them to chat. She has learnt to identify his mood swings and is sensitive to his emotional state. On days when he doesn’t want to get up in the morning, she tugs at his blanket and brings her toys until he responds to her and eventually gets up.

"I have no doubt that Reuven’s quality of life has improved immeasurably with Polly," says Ben Yosef. "She has helped him recover his physical health by allowing him the freedom to walk long distances; emotionally, she provides him with companionship, offers him the opportunity to interact socially, and boosts his confidence."

A second Alzheimer’s Aid Dog, Daisy, is currently being trained to assist another patient – a woman who was recently diagnosed with the disease – and Ben-Yosef hopes to train 50 dogs annually.

The training of the dog and pairing with the recipient is a long, painstaking process - around 20 months of training – and a costly one too: a fully trained dog costs $16,000. But, claims Ben-Yosef, there is growing interest in his work from around the world. He has joined forces with the Israeli Alzheimer's Association to promote the project and it has attracted interest from Alzheimer's groups and dog training organisations across the globe. "There is a pilgrimage to our place on a regular basis" he laughs. "Despite the security situation in Israel people come from as far as Russia, Finland and Japan. We are considering candidates from Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

Alzheimer’s disease is a cruel affliction which affects over 750,000 people in the UK. Iris Murdoch, who died of Alzheimer's disease, described it as "a dark and terrible place". A cure is still far off on the horizon, but it is reassuring to know that some assistance is available in the shape of a dog.

Center for Service and Therapy Dogs 00 972 54-690548 / 00 972 58-460779

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