By: Patti Strand  Date: 01/27/2012

Everyone knows that animals bring pleasure to people. Many dog owners in particular belong to therapy groups that visit a variety of facilities to bring that pleasure to patients and residents.

The Eden Alternative is animal therapy writ large – it brings animals into nursing and retirement homes as permanent inhabitants in a cooperative program that involves staff and residents.

Eden was founded in 1991 by Bill and Jude Thomas, a visionary couple who realized that the elderly residents of these facilities often suffer from boredom, loneliness, and helplessness. They understood not only that animals and plants could help alleviate these debilitating emotions, but that the efforts would fail if they were done haphazardly. Therefore, the Eden Alternative offers training to staff members and a plan for including residents in the project.

Eden is based on 10 principles that help relieve boredom, loneliness, and helplessness by de-emphasizing top-down bureaucratic authority and including the residents in planning, giving them easy access to plants and animals, bringing children into the facility, and “creating an environment in which unexpected and unpredictable interactions and happenings can take place.”

In practices, the principles depend on resident animals, an opportunity to garden, and visits from children. A facility might have a live-in dog or cat (or two or three), a bird habitat, a monster fish tank, and indoor and outdoor plantings that residents can help care for. Individual residents may have a small pet in their rooms, and residents who don’t want to be accosted by a cat looking for a lap or a dog looking for a hug can opt out by declaring their rooms to be “pet free zones.”

Eden facilities include children in daily activities by welcoming visits from public and private schools or youth groups or by establishing day-care facilities on their premises. Children participate in activities with the residents: they may attend an in-house concert, work on craft projects, garden, or join together in other programs.

More than 200 homes serving senior citizens have joined the Eden Alternative. For more information, visit the Eden website at www.edenalt.com/welcome.htm or call the New York headquarters at (907) 247-1997.

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