March 11, 2011 / 4:11 PM / 8 years ago

How pigs are getting pensioners to open up

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany (Reuters Life!) - Residents of senior homes here are often sceptical when Daan Vermeulen walks through the door with his pig grunting by his side.

But, the physiotherapist tells Reuters, such apprehension is necessary for his work to be successful.

Vermeulen practices an odd form of physical therapy — he lets senior citizens and children with emotional and behavioral problems feed, groom and dress up pigs as a way of making uninterested patients more receptive to therapy.

The pigs are not always welcomed at first by patients, which Vermeulen takes as a good sign.

“Fear is good at times,” the Dutchman said. “I think whoever begins with a fear of animals has the possibility to develop and eventually be able to feed or groom the animal without angst. That would be enormous progress.”

Vermeulen has two pigs he uses for therapy: Felix and Rudi. They are miniature pigs, which typically weigh less than 68 kilos (150 lbs) and are often used in medical research.

Pigs project calm to edgy seniors and get them to move about, helping their deteriorating motor skills, he said. They act as a kind of social lubricant for patients with psychological and concentration problems.

Vermeulen started using pigs four years ago when it helped an elderly patient embrace physical therapy.

The animals have a strong emotional effect on Germany’s older generation in particular, he said.

“This generation associates pigs strongly with their youth,” Vermeulen said. “It’s a reunion with an animal one once knew well but hasn’t thought of in many years.”

Residents at the home warmly recall growing up with pigs.

“I really liked pigs,” resident Gretel Buhl said. “But we slaughtered them. ... It was a lot of fun, there was always wurst and it tasted great. Everything was so fresh and delicious — and the blood sausage.”

“We had several pigs when I was young but I haven’t had any since I got married at 25,” resident Walter Stroebel said.

Cats, dogs and horses are often used in therapy, but a pig is successful because it is unusual enough to hold a crowd’s attention, Vermeulen said.

“Dogs certainly have good qualities but if I’m walking along one side of the street with my pig and you’re walking along the other side with your dog, then everyone will look at me,” he said. “That’s the advantage of a pig.”

Writing by Eric Kelsey; Editing by Steve Addison

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