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Warm and Fuzzy Animal Assisted Therapy Engages and Delights Residents at The Hearth at Drexel

February 19, 2024

This story appears in the Spring 2024 issue of At Liberty.

Residents at The Hearth at Drexel, an Assisted Living and Memory Care community in Bala Cynwyd, PA, enjoy engaging monthly visits from four-legged, furry friends in The Gathering Place, thanks to the work of certified Animal Assisted Therapist, (AAT) Marjorie Shoemaker.

After studying Veterinary Sciences in college, she was later AAT credentialed in the first class offered by AAT pioneer, Dr. Aaron Katcher, Professor Emeritus at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA.

Marjorie started bringing rabbits and guinea pigs to visit The Hearth residents seven years ago after Jessica Buck, Director of Community Life, joined the team. She and Jessica had worked together in professional settings in the Philadelphia area for several years prior.

The Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Seniors

She explains, “There are physical and mental benefits of interacting with animals for older adults. The small, furry creatures make a big impression upon residents, especially when we line up 18 feet of tables, covered in colorful quilts, creating a run-way scattered with carrots and parsley for animals to eat.”

Older adults experience sensory stimulation from the visual, tactile and auditory experiences animals can provide. Guinea pigs can sit for 20-30 minutes and purr when placed in someone’s lap. Their purring sounds like a chirp loud enough that people with hearing loss can hear it.

The bunnies jump with all four paws in the air, called ‘making binkies.’ Residents are fascinated watching them race around, and are especially amused by the names of her ten rescued animals.

Raspberry (who has red eyes), Vivaldi, Mademoiselle Mop, Pippins and Pandora Pig (two sister guinea pigs), along with Delilah, Beulah, and Thelma, captivate residents.

“In the past, I have had up to 15 breeds of guinea pigs from hairless to dust-mop varieties. Some people prefer patting the skin of the hairless, while others enjoy petting the long haired ones,” Marjorie continues.

Interactions with Animals Activates Long-Term Memories

“Interacting with animals often activates a person’s long term memory; he or she will recall and talk about loving a pet rabbit as a child. Some people who haven’t spoken for several days will utter complete sentences when holding a bunny, saying, ‘Oh, it feels so soft!’”

At The Hearth, Marjorie works with residents in assisted living. In her work elsewhere, she sees animal assisted therapy profoundly impacting people with all forms of neurodegeneration.

“Marjorie has enriched seniors’ lives by providing interactions with animals that they would not otherwise encounter inside their communities,” says Jessica Buck, Director of Community Life at The Hearth.