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Are Kids Good for Your Health?

The pitter-patter of little feet may be just the right tonic.

WebMD Feature

May 1, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Three days before Thanksgiving rolled around last fall, I turned to the section on nursing homes in the Yellow Pages. No, I wasn't scouting out emergency care possibilities for an older relative. I was looking for a place to visit with my 18-month-old twins, a place that would distract me from my usual holiday tally of every odd remark uttered by my extended family.

At 10 a.m. Thanksgiving morning, I pushed the stroller into the Jewish Home for the Aged, a lovely, old brick building with colorful artwork on the walls. At the end of a hallway sat seven women, dressed in stylish pantsuits, who greeted us with the ardor of long-suffering fans finally rewarded by the appearance of a matinee idol, or suave singer Tom Jones, perhaps.

"Twins! A boy! A girl!"

A lanky, smooth-faced woman stood and bowed to me. Her petite friend gave us the thumbs-up. "You are the mother! Most wonderful!"

At least, I think that's what they were saying. Mostly, they spoke Russian. We strolled on. At every turn, the twins, Claire and Drew, let kind strangers stroke their cheeks and rub their chubby legs. Claire rode on Mrs. Glickman's lap in a wheelchair; Drew tossed around the pink slippers in Mrs. Vanoss' closet.

A Boost to the Health as Well as the Spirits

We knew we were having a great time. What we didn't know was that our presence was reducing the residents' need for antidepressants, boosting their immune systems, cutting back the incidence of ulcers, and, as our visits continued over the following months, giving Mrs. Vanoss a reason to live.

But those kinds of dramatic effects are what the studies demonstrate. William H. Thomas, MD, has tracked the effects of surrounding nursing home residents with pets, plants, and children as part of his nursing home revolution known as "the Eden Alternative." In the first "Edenizing" nursing homes in upstate New York, Thomas reported after one year a decrease in the use of all medications, a decline in the incidence of new ulcers, and a drop in staff absenteeism, compared to a control facility.

Intrigued, Southwest Texas State University researchers studied five "Edenizing" nursing homes in Texas over a two-year period and reported their findings in the Texas Journal on Aging. They found a 57% reduction in the incidence of new ulcers, a 48% reduction in staff absenteeism, an 18% reduction in restraint use, and a 60% reduction in reports of altercations between residents, compared to control facilities.

"Companionship is food and drink for the human spirit," says Thomas. Take away what he calls "the three plagues" of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom, and the body will respond, he theorizes. "There is a spiritual dimension to a human life."

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