This rural Kansas memory care facility takes an experimental approach, offering an immersive experience for retired farmers and ranchers. The result? Happy animals, happy residents.
At a memory care facility in Kansas, the youngest new resident to arrive this winter is a young calf named Spuds.
The Lighthouse, a farm and memory care facility located in Marysville, Kansas, offers something special to their residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s — especially those who have an agricultural history: an experience that recalls some of the best aspects of life before their diagnoses.
The former farmers and ranchers who receive care at The Lighthouse spend most of their days tending to and caring for animals. One of the newest additions is Spuds, the young calf born during the harsh winter of 2020-21, has become an unlikely roommate to other residents.
According to the facility’s website, The Lighthouse offers a 1:4 caregiver-resident ratio and 24-hour nursing services, but staff expertise in memory care extends beyond standard practices: residents are given reminiscence, music, pet and aromatherapy options.
Co-founder of The Lighthouse Mandy Becker previously worked in high-capacity memory care facilities in New York, where outdoor stimulation was scarce. Through this work, she told Ag Update, she realized the importance of a person’s life before they were diagnosed and how a reflection of their past would be crucial to their treatment. The sights, sounds and smells would bring residents back to an environment connected to joy.
“The emotional reactions can linger, whether good or bad, so we bring in good moments, bursts of joy, laughter and fun, to create a lingering feeling of safety, home and comfort. Even a negative news story on television can trigger an emotion in their brain,” she said. “However, we’re unable to process where it came from. There’s not a lot of joy with dementia — it’s a debilitating and devastating disease. And that’s where we come in; we keep everything uplifting and fun because that’s what life is about. We tap into that part of the brain to spend days in a positive light and positive place.”
Animal therapy has a plethora of positive effects for people living with cognitive decline. Experts note it offers a means of connection with the past, not to mention companionship, and those things correspond to improved mood, sense of calmness, behavioral benefits, more socializing and physical activity, and in sum, better overall physical and mental health.
Not only do pets promote better health for people living with dementia, experts say they can reduce the need for potentially harmful mood-stabilizing medications.
Of course, not everyone in memory care has ready access to a menagerie of farm animals.
To help people who can’t have pets in memory care reap the documented benefits of pet therapy, robotic pets have become a trend in the long-term care market, especially for those who are living alone. Research shows they have some of the same benefits of real live animals, such as reducing loneliness and irritability, while eliminating the needs for training, feeding, cleaning and/or walking of pets, which can be tough to navigate for people living with cognitive decline.
Valerie Starwalt, the daughter of Joyce, a resident of The Lighthouse, said that she could “see the happiness on her face when she interacted with Spuds.” Joyce worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was raised on a wheat form, where her passion for agriculture was curated.
“Mom’s smile is there with every farm animal. Animals brighten her. I feel that when you’re a nurturer, it stays with you forever,” Starwalt said. “By finding whatever makes [residents] happy, it makes their adjustment into a nursing home 100 times easier. Seeing her with the animals, dogs, cats, calves, sheep and cow, you know those were things she loved, and that love never left.”