Julie Casey MSW, RSW

Wellness Care Farm

Nourishing Hearts

Check out our presentation on Animals, Seniors and Social Work. which highlights the benefits of human-animal relationships for seniors and reviews social work considerations for people living in both the community and residential settings. 


Nourishing Hearts’ Animal Assisted Therapy utilizes a Strength-Based perspective to tailor the program to residents' individual interests, preferences and abilities. The theories of Active Aging, Social Cognition and Coping Skills provide a foundation to understanding in which to  build confidence, provide social interaction, reduce feelings of loneliness, decrease agitation, and enrich  lives.

Animal can help to:

  • Maintain social interaction and communication skills
  • Stimulate cognitive functioning
  • Help with orientation/grounding
  • Experience multi-sensory and motor stimulation
  • Alleviate loneliness and isolation
  • Experience joy and happiness
  • Experience soothing comfort
  • Express emotions
  • Stimulate remote memories
  • Participate in meaningful conversation
  • Promotes physical activity

Evidence Based Approach For Seniors

Strength-based  Perspective

According to Heyne and Anderson (2012) “Strengths are at the heart of therapeutic recreation practice. When therapeutic recreation... focuses on strengths-oriented aspects such as what people hope for in their lives, what they are good at, what they value, and what is supportive in their environment, they can best help participants reach their goals and aspirations” (p. 107). Furthermore, strength is defined as the quality or state of being strong and the capacity for exertion and endurance in the face of challenge or adversity, through the use of internal and external personal qualities, characteristics, talents, skills, environments, interests, and aspirations . Rather than focusing on deficits created by the aging process and specifically dementia as a progressive disease, AAT builds on an individual’s strengths such as remote memories, interests, experiences and motivations associated with their own animals from their past or with the therapy animal in session.

Activity Theories of  Aging

A positive relationship has been associated between the level of social participation of older persons and their life satisfaction...This view of aging assumes that social activity provides older people with the role supports necessary for reaffirming their self-concept... The activity approach negates the image of pathological aging; that is, it stresses productivity and deemphasizes debility” (Litwin, 1987, p.4). AAT creates opportunity and motivation for meaningful activity and social participation that meets individuals where they are at, where activities are modified to each individual’s need, ability and interest.

Social Cognitive Theory

According to Wise (2002), social cognitive theory explains how human behavior is the result of multiple interacting personal, environmental, and behavioral factors. Additionally, personal factors  are said to reside within the individual, including self-efficacy and self-regulation  psychological constructs and biological features such as hormones and height. The environmental factors are characteristics of situations which reside outside the individual, including the physical and social environment. Personal behavioural factors including self-efficacy interact in the experience. “Perceptions of self-efficacy influence what activities people attempt, how much effort they expend on those activities, and how long they persevere when obstacles are encountered. Those who are efficacious try new activities, expend more effort, and persevere longer” (p.337). Wise (2002) explains “efficacy generalizes across activities and situations where personal strengths and weaknesses are considered relevant. In other words, people are more efficacious toward situations where their strengths are necessary ingredients for success and less efficacious toward situations where personal weaknesses are believed to play an important role in determining success” (p. 337). Furthermore, self-efficacy is connected to diverse health related outcomes such as higher quality of life, greater psychological well being , and shorter hospital stays. “Those with stronger perceptions of personal efficacy recovered quicker and exhibited higher levels of functioning (Wise, 2002, p. 339). Efficacy is central to all person-centred approaches whether it be recreational activities or clinical therapy  interventions. AAT are tailored to individuals in order to maximize and strengthen self-efficacy.

Coping Skills Theory

According to Deyell Hood and Carruthers (2002), in order to understand the issue of coping, the situations and conditions that create the need for coping  must be considered. Stimuli also known as stressors, challenges the individual and motivates a response and/or modifications to the situation. Stressors are considered any environmental, social, or internal demand that requires the individual to utilize physical and psychological resources, along with strategies and techniques for coping, to readjust their usual behavior pattern. The depletion of individual resources, along with  accumulated stressors, increases the possibility of illness, injury, and/or psychological distress. “For persons with disabilities and illnesses, the process of coping is often difficult in that it may require new skills that were not previously in their repertoire and the problems they face often do not have simple solutions” (Deyell Hood & Carruthers, 2002, p.4). AAT  provides an opportunity to participate in both previously preferred and new activities that utilize personal strengths and maximize self-efficacy while maintaining old skills and developing new coping strategies to manage life's stressors.


Deyell Hood, C. and Carruthers, C. (2002). Coping skills theory as an underlying framework for therapeutic recreation services. Therapeutic recreation journal 36, (2)

Heyne, L. A., & Anderson, L. S. (2012). Theories that support strengths-based practice in therapeutic recreation.Therapeutic Recreation Journal,46(2), 106.

International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations(IAHAIO). (2014). Definitions for animal assisted Intervention and guidelines for wellness of animals involved. Retrieved on January 23, 2016 from: http://iahaio.org/new/fileuploads/4163IAHAIO%20WHITE%20PAPER-%20FINAL%20-%20NOV%2024-2014.pdf

Litwin, H. (1987). Applying theories of aging to evaluation of social programs for the elderly.Evaluation Review, 11(3), 267-280

Wise, James B. 2002. Social cognitive theory: A framework for therapeutic recreation practice. Therapeutic recreation journal 36, (4).

Animal  and Seniors