Alzheimer's Foundation of America's therapy dog classes are free and open to the public
Credit: Alzheimer’s Foundation of America

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America‘s Education and Resource Center in New York City is always an engaging place to visit, but one day a month it gets especially fluffy.

The non-profit organization recently started hosting free therapy dog bonding sessions at their center to anyone affected by Alzheimer’s, not just those who have a dementia-related illness, but their caregivers, family and friends as well.

“The mission of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) is to provide support, services and education to individuals, families and caregivers affected by Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias nationwide, and fund research for better treatment and a cure,” Molly Fogel, AFA’s director of educational and social services, told PEOPLE.

How therapy dogs fit into this mission statement is clear, especially when you see how visitors to the center react to the canine guests.

“We’re an organization of pet lovers and we recognize the therapeutic value animals hold for individuals of all ages,” Fogel said. “Specifically when it comes to dementia-related illnesses, there is a variety of ways pet therapy has value.”

Credit: Alzheimer’s Foundation of America

“For example, an individual who might not be as engaged with the people around them in a nursing home or care setting, when you bring a dog into the environment, their face may light up, they may start petting the dog — which provides them love and comfort and stimulation and could simulate some of the memories of pets they had as a child and they can engage through this reminiscence and talk all about their pet,” she added.

Each session includes two trained therapy dogs from The Good Dog Foundation and their handlers. Each canine has been trained to safely interact with senior citizens in an elder care setting.

The 15 spots, which ensure everyone gets ample one-one-one time with the dogs, in each therapy dog meet-and-greet fill up fast, often with visitors returning for another dose of dog love.

“Once you see them with the dogs, it is just smiles, and joy and stories and laughter,” Fogel shared “They become almost transformed and leave with smiles on their faces excited to come back.”

Credit: Alzheimer’s Foundation of America

For many, the benefits from these sessions come from receiving feelings of love and affection from the dogs. Fogel hopes these sessions show to others that those affected by Alzheimer’s can live a full, meaningful life filled with likes, hobbies and opportunities to engage.

For those who aren’t comfortable around animals, AFA’s Education and Resource Center provides plenty of other options that encourage engagement, including dance lessons, improv classes, musical performances and more. AFA also has a toll-free helpline (866-232-8484) that is staffed exclusively with licensed social workers who are always available to help those affected by Alzheimer’s learn more about the resources available to them.

All of the classes at AFA’s Education and Resource Center are free and open to everyone. You do not need an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to participate, but AFA’s programs are designed with older individuals in mind. To learn more about the classes offered, how to sign up and how to support AFA, visit the non-profit’s website.