The Connected HorseA 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Corporation
Innovations in Dementia Care; Evidence-Based Research
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In mid-2015, long-time friends, equestrians and residential dementia care specialists, Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Paula Hertel, began to wonder if they could combine their passion for horses with their knowledge of dementia to create programs to benefit those affected by cognitive disorders.
“As equestrians,” Nancy said, “we know there is a very real healing presence about these magnificent creatures. We wanted to explore whether guided engagement with horses might increase the quality of life for persons diagnosed with dementia as well as their care partners and family members.”
Putting their heads together, they designed The Connected Horse to explore whether guided engagement with horses might reduce stress and strengthen communication, trust and cooperation among those affected by young onset or early stage dementia.
Paula noted, “We know that people want to stay connected and engaged regardless of their diagnoses and that there is an unmet need to offer more engagement programs for people affected by dementia.
“The numbers are there. Over 5.3 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia and that is expected to grow by 40% over the next decade. More than 200,000 of them are under the age of 65,” Paula said. They developed a research project to gain understanding of stressors and stress reducers to better support the care-partner relationship.
By the fall of 2015, they began a collaboration with Stanford University’s Red Barn Leadership Program. Nancy explained, “Horses have an innate ability to ‘read’ emotions, behaviors and intent of people working with them. They respond rapidly, which gives immediate feedback.
“You cannot force a 1200-pound animal to do what you want; you have to lead and partner with it,” Nancy continued. “We wondered if equine-guided activities focusing on mindfulness, self-awareness, body movement control, and verbal and nonverbal communication might help individuals and their care partners as they begin the uncharted journey of living with dementia.”
In November 2015, the Connected Horse completed the first phase of its research, and, according to Nancy, results were promising. She said, “We were pleasantly surprised at how quickly the participants developed trust with each other and the horses. The sense of community was palpable.” (Details about preliminary results can be found at www.connectedhorse.com)
Phase 2 of the research will begin in May 2016 and repeat the format of Phase 1. Participants with early stage diagnoses of dementia and their primary care partner will spend a total of 15 hours on the project over a 60-day period.
They will complete a 1-hour initial phone interview; a 2-hour barn tour and pre-workshop survey; 2, 5-hour workshops with the horses; and a 2-hour post-program phone interview and survey. There is no fee for participants and they do not ride the horses; instead they engage with the horses from the ground, leading them in a series of activities.
“We are working with an amazing group of Stanford University professionals, volunteers, and horses,” Paula stated. Others involved with the study include Jacqueline Hartman, co-founder and lead facilitator of Stanford’s Red Barn Leadership Program; Dolores Gallagher Thompson, PhD, principal investigator; Nusha Askari, PhD, research coordinator; Ann Bilbrey, PhD, project coordinator; Elizabeth Landsverk, M.D., Medical Advisor; and Elke Tekin, project assistant.
In addition to coordinating the study, Nancy and Paula raised over $20,000 to fund the study through contributions from colleagues in the senior living industry, horse enthusiasts, and other generous individuals. Nancy said, “We give special thanks to the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California and members of the California Assisted Living Association. We are truly grateful, both for the financial assistance and the support we’ve received.”
They are now raising funds for Phase 2 of their research and urgently encourage those who are able to make a donation or provide a sponsorship through Go Fund Me / Connected Horse.
Early in 2016, Paula and Nancy incorporated the Connected Horse as a nonprofit organization to continue their research and develop new initiatives, such as creating training materials and securing other equestrian sites. Paula noted, “There are 9.2 million horses in the United States and over 2 million horse owners. We believe many will want to champion and join our efforts.”
Nancy stated, “We hope our empirical evidence continues to demonstrate positive outcomes for persons with dementia and their caregivers. We would like Connected Horse programs to become another dementia care option and provide new ways to assist those seniors we have the honor to care for everyday.”
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