A bingo project aimed at helping Scots living with dementia during the pandemic has enlisted the help of furry friends.
Dementia Dog, a collaboration between Alzheimer Scotland and UK-wide charity Dogs for Good, uses specially trained dogs to help people with dementia and their carers.
The initiative was born after the charity had to think of new ways to work with their clients and help them stay connected in order to reduce social isolation.
Virtual Dog Bingo was one of the projects, which would see video calls with existing Alzheimer Scotland dementia support groups in various locations across Scotland such as Aberdeen and Fort William.
To date, the dogs have been Billy, a four-year-old black Lab and Retriever mix, with Carla and Georgie, a four-year-old Golden Retriever, with Julia Winters who is based in Bristol but delivers Doggy Bingo sessions in Scotland and they are both trained Dementia Community Dogs.
In the new year, a new pool of Dementia Dog volunteers will be trained with their own trained pet dogs to help deliver virtual dog bingo sessions to help then to meet rising demand.
Carla Haizelden, a Dementia Community Dog handler in Glasgow with dog Billy, said: “Doggy Bingo is very straightforward and easy to play.
“The players can watch Billy go and fetch a ball with a random number on it from a container. He passes it to me and I read out the number.
“Although the dogs are all very well trained we do allow them to have their own personality so it’s only natural that they sometimes get distracted and go off.
“There have been times during a game when Billy walks off to get my slippers or a toy instead of a bingo ball and that always gives everyone a bit of a laugh.
“He also gets impatient and whines when I’m talking too much because he wants to get on with the playing game and pick the numbers.”
Donna Paterson, a dementia advisor at Alzheimer Scotland, said: “The feedback for the online bingo has been incredibly positive, participants can’t wait for the next session, they want to know when it is and they love the fact that it’s the dog that picks the bingo balls.
“They’re quite a competitive bunch and they’re really enjoying the banter online – it’s been a highlight for them and us and a real boost of positivity in the day.”
Dementia Dog also offers virtual dog walks which connect a dog handler and their dog with the person with dementia and their carer using a secure video link via ‘NHS attend anywhere’. People just need a smartphone or a tablet to take part.
Ms Haizelden, along with her dog Billy, join clients for virtual walks via a video link.
She said: “The walks are super fun and designed to help restore some routine back into people’s daily lives and keep them motivated to exercise.
“Normally, we’d work face to face with a person living with a diagnosis of dementia to promote social development goals such as building confidence or self-reliance.
“Because we’re all staying home more at the moment, we found that some of our clients were finding the lack of routine and cognitive stimulation a real struggle and that’s where the virtual dog walks come in.
“The video link allows us to have conversations and share experiences while we’re on our walks. It also allows the client to interact with the dog and to give commands which makes it far more interactive.”
Dementia Dog also works with physiotherapists to offer virtual exercise sessions which are individually tailored to clients and delivered via video calls to their home.
Dementia assistance dogs
The project also provides specially trained dementia assistance dogs who can retrieve pouches holding medicine, gently wake up owners from naps, and help remove items of clothing.
Jeannette and Jon King, from Aberdeen, received a dementia assistance dog in 2018 who is now a four-year-old Labrador called Lenny.
Mr King, 77, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago and since Lenny joined the household he’s had an incredibly positive impact on their lives.
Mrs King, 74, said: “Lenny has changed our lives. Getting Lenny is one of the best things I’ve done in my life.
“When you or your partner receive a diagnosis, it feels like your life is closing down, but Lenny has opened up a new world.
“Jon has suffered from severe depression for many years, but Lenny provides a positive start to the day. He makes Alzheimer’s that little less frightening.
“We’re out every day with Lenny. That is a bonus for our health and socialising – we are forever stopping to talk to people.
“Jon can’t bear to be without Lenny now. He’s the one thing always guaranteed to make him smile.”
Lenny has been particularly helpful throughout the pandemic and lockdowns.
Mr King now struggles to walk long distances but he still enjoys short strolls and sitting in the garden and throwing balls for Lenny. Mrs King also gets outside regularly for exercise with Lenny.
She added: “I walk him for about an hour every day which I don’t think I’d be doing otherwise but because it’s something I have to do I go out even when I don’t really feel like it. I never regret going and I always enjoy it.
“I think it’s also the emotional impact that he’s had on us both that’s been most important, particularly now Jon can’t get out as much.
“Jon has so much affection for Lenny and it’s reciprocated, he’s such an affectionate, gentle creature.
“When it’s been just the two of us at home during the lockdown having Lenny is like having a third person, but probably less trouble than a real person would be.
“He always welcomes us and we share and enjoy him. I suspect we’d be more likely to get irritated with each other without Lenny, he’s great for diffusing any tension or low moods in the house.”
Mrs King has also benefited from joining video calls with the Dementia Dog instructors and other carers.
This has enabled her to talk to others with experience of caring for a person with Alzheimer’s and to share practical advice and support.