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Reaching Out to an Elderly Population – Meet Ione Rojas of Furry Tales

Telling Her Story to Write a Greater Story

When Ms. Ione Rojas’ grandfather was diagnosed with dementia, he was fortunate in that he had his whole family to support him throughout the ordeal. Many in the elderly population in East London are not fortunate to have family there to support them. When Rojas realized this at first it made her sad, but then she used it as an inspiration to share support and love that everyone should receive especially in times of need.

Rojas’ curiosity in working with older people was sparked by her grandfather’s dementia and then she began building the Furry Tales program. She has been volunteering with Stepney City Farm since October of 2012. The mission of Stepney City Farm is to bring the community together by building a green space where the community can learn different skills and rural arts. They have developed growing workshops and educational programs which have run since 2009. She was impressed by their incredible values, the encouraging people. and the inclusive mission and decided this was the right place to lay the groundwork for the Furry Tales Program. The Furry Tales Program was started in January of 2013 to begin reaching out and assisting the elderly population and received funding from UnLtd and Merchant Taylors in August of 2013.

Furry Tales was developed in January 2013, and received official funding last August. The first step was to get different residential homes on board with different animal therapy techniques and to try to encourage them to give this program a try. The biggest challenge to the development of the partnerships was not the idea or techniques, but the funding. It is always difficult to develop evidence and research for the human-animal bond because it focuses on the energy created by having animals around; individuals can experience this firsthand when observing animals and clients, but that evidence can be hard to put into numbers. Some people will not believe the evidence until they see numbers and statistics, which is where the true struggle is. Once they see it firsthand it is easier for them to keep an open mind about the human-animal bond. The six-month pilot program consisted of outreach sessions and on-site sessions put on by Furry Tales. These experiences have developed enough visual evidence that Furry Tales has been able to receive funding and has been running smoothly since August of 2013.

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Furry Tales Influencing the Human-Animal Bond

Rojas believes that the most important part of the human-animal bond is the comfort that physical touch can have, especially on people suffering from dementia. Animals continue to have a different kind of connection with patients who cannot communicate verbally anymore. This bond is being captured through the visual evidence that Furry Tales is recording to be a testimonial of the great work they do. The animals are not just there for show-and-tell, but they have become a catalyst for patients to begin talking. Furry Tales has been able to find ways to promote the prioritization of the participants of the animal therapy sessions both patients and animals. Furry Tales also allows people to share the caretaking of the animals, by getting employees of the residential homes involved in understanding the importance animal and human welfare. Furry Tales has been able to develop ways to communicate and educate people on the importance of animal and patient welfare.

For Rojas, one big challenge is to manage all of the groups, including having all of the best interests at heart, for both humans and animals. She continues, “I am always making sure there is a rest space, and creating the environments for the animals. And educating the building managers so that working to accommodate the animals comes easy rather than adding to the stress that already exists with their jobs – from my experience it is not that they aren’t willing, or not understanding, they just have a lot on their plate to balance already. Rojas says that one of the biggest surprises is watching the different demographics of patients interact with different animals; for example, men have a surprising connection with Pekin Bantam chickens, birds which Rojas describes as ones that look like they’re wearing little trousers. Rojas says that the men likely respond well to the chickens because they remind them of the farming lifestyle that is was very common for the elderly population that grew up some 50+ years ago and is another consideration Furry Tales has taken. The chickens are peaceful and always are able to calm down and comfort the patients and coax them into sharing their stories to open up the communication.

On-Site Sessions and Outreach Sessions – How Furry Tales Works with Residential HomesUKPN3.jpg

Furry Tales currently puts on two different kinds of sessions for clients and residence homes. On-Site Sessions provide a richer experience for patients because they are able to get outside of the building. They are able to get the outdoor stimulation because all of their senses are interacting with nature and allowing them to connect with the community that Stepney City Farm engages. An Outreach Session is when the residence home is unable to get to the farm, usually due to lacking either the funds or the means of transportation. In those situations, Furry Tales brings the nature inside the home, bringing more than just the animals but also props and the farm environment to really transform the experience. The more that they continue to do Outreach Sessions, the more they allow residence home staff firsthand experience setting up and seeing how it helps comfort their patients, which can encourage the staff to try and find ways to get their residents to the actual farm for an On-Site Session.

The Human-Animal Bond – Academic Studying & New Areas of Research

Ione shares one of her most rewarding experiences that encourages her to share her research and the development of the human-animal bond and hopes that it will inspire others to find it important to study academically and to find new ways to apply this technique of animal therapy. “There are people who love the animals immediately, but it is the subtle changes that I find so rewarding and love to see happen.” Rojas spoke of one woman in a recent session who was completely withdrawn and incredibly anxious. Supervisors of the residence informed Rojas before the session began that this particular resident had not been engaged with other activities that they had tried in the home. When the animals were first brought out, the woman’s anxiety seemed to worsen. However, Rojas approached her and sat next to her, holding a guinea pig. At first, the woman ignored her and wouldn’t even make eye contact. Rojas sat patiently, stroking the guinea pig herself and allowing it to behave naturally, without forcing the woman to interact. “By the end, I saw her looking at the guinea pig, then suddenly and to everyone’s surprise she had reached out and stroked the guinea pig, and she looked at me, made eye contact, and then smiled – it was lovely.,” Rojas said. “Little changes can mean the most, and one individual’s day can be turned around.”

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With such wonderful stories, testimonials, and visual evidence, Rojas finds it very important to supplement this research and evidence with academic support and findings. For people who don’t find the merit or value in human-animal bond interactions, it is extremely important to continue to build a foundation of academic and scholarship in the human animal bond. When the human-animal bond is studied in an academic manner, it will empower organizations such as Furry Tales to continue the great work they do. She believes academic research will establish the importance of the human-animal bond.

Rojas has developed an interest in how animals become catalysts for conversation that humans can’t. She has begun working on capturing an oral history with people in their 80s and 90s to be able to communicate the stories and begin documenting the evidence of what animals bring out in people. Additionally, Furry Tales has been pursuing other ways to educate residential homes to get more On- Site Sessions because they are more effective which will also help the local government to understand the importance of the human-animal bond and how to develop community and capture the oral history of residents.

More information can be found about Stepney City Farm and Furry Tales at their websites.

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