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The miniature donkeys helping people living with dementia one visit at a time

Resident Sylvia meeting Pixie the miniature donkey, who she knitted a blanket for earlier this year.

The National Lottery

5 min read Partner content

Last month was World Alzheimer’s Month, a global opportunity to raise awareness, increase support and demystify dementia. Community support is often a vital lifeline for people with dementia and their families, and comes in an array of different, and sometimes unexpected, forms.

More than half of UK adults know someone who has been diagnosed with dementia, with over 944,000 people estimated to be living with the disease in the UK.[1]

Dr James Davies MP, who prior to becoming an MP was an NHS doctor for 15 years and a clinical champion for dementia, stresses the importance of World Alzheimer’s Month. “With people living longer, more and more people are being affected by dementia in general. It is one of the key challenges facing us in this age, particularly in the UK. We need not only to ensure that those affected have the best assistance and support possible, but also those around them, their carers and families”. 

Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, who sits on the Dementia All-Party Parliamentary Group alongside Dr Davies, agrees that it’s important we recognise the impact the disease has across the UK, and suggests that we must “ensure every dementia patient gets the medical, emotional and social support they need.”

One type of emotional support provided for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, which has received an increased amount of attention over the past few years, is animal assisted therapy. Animals can often improve self-esteem and confidence in people with dementia, and visits can be an energetic experience or an exciting part of a person's day.

National Lottery-funded Good Cause, the Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing, known as the Mini Donks, is one of many great firsthand examples of how animal assisted therapy is working.

Founder, Sarah McPherson, saw the impact of animal therapy for herself when her mum, and then her dad, were diagnosed with dementia.

Sarah noticed that her mum particularly enjoyed spending time with her pet miniature donkeys. “I always used to feel that I got a bit of my mum back when she was with the donkeys. It was really precious” she explains. When her mum moved into a care home, Sarah was allowed to take the donkeys to visit, which provided the inspiration for Mini Donks.

After Sarah’s mum sadly died in April 2017, she handed in her notice and devoted herself to using her miniature donkeys to help others, including by taking them to care homes, schools and secure psychiatric hospitals. Sarah built up a team of volunteers, who were going on as many as six visits per week, and used National Lottery funding to purchase a horsebox to transport the Mini Donks.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sarah and her team were unable to visit any care homes for 15 months. They did try some socially distanced visits when allowed, and created activity packs for residents but nothing could compare to the full in-person visits.

However, the team are now back out and about providing these important visits. Recently, Miniature donkeys Pixie (6), Millie (4) and Jack Rabbit (2) visited Brooklands Care Home in Norfolk, a residential and nursing care home, which has a specialist dementia wing.

At Brooklands, the care home staff have found that residents who don’t usually join in with activities will come out and be part of the donkeys’ visits, stroking and talking to them. Jamie Willimott, Lifestyle Coordinator, at Brooklands explains “We have many residents who become isolated, and refuse to participate in activities, rarely leaving their rooms. Especially with our dementia residents, the cognitive response we get and the change in their attitudes when the mini donkeys come and visit is frankly amazing. The joy that it gives to our residents is second to none.”

“After months of covid lockdowns and restrictions, having the animals come back in has made a massive difference to their wellbeing and state of mind.”

“For days and weeks after the donkeys have visited, the residents will be asking when they are visiting again, and reflecting on what a nice time they had. I can’t praise the Mini Donks for their therapy enough.”

As well as setting up a pen in the garden for residents to visit, Sarah and the team took miniature donkey, Millie, into the care home to visit residents who were unable to leave their bedrooms, even managing to navigate a lift.

Pixie also met up with resident Sylvia Arnold, who along with other residents, had knitted the mini donkeys special blankets during the winter to ensure they kept warm. Sylvia was delighted to see Pixie again, letting her whisper a secret into her ear, and discussing the “beautiful donkeys” with staff and other residents.

Dr Davies praised the strides taken by community groups and dementia champions across the years, noting that Sarah and the Mini Donks were a “really fantastic initiative”. He  also noted the importance of educating the younger generations and reestablishing, and building upon, all of the good work supporting dementia patients before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thanks to National Lottery players, over £30 million is raised each week for good causes across the UK, funding projects supporting organisations like Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing and helping communities come together across the UK.

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Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

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