Older adult's lives are measurably improved by the love and companionship offered by their pets. Animals often fill a void in the lives of the elderly who are alone without friends or loved ones. Maintaining a network of friends and family isn’t always easy as we age. Pets, especially dogs are a great way for seniors to meet new friends and initiate conversations. Research documents other benefits of pet ownership for seniors aside from support and companionship.
A recent study in the Journal of Community Health Nursing found that older women who developed an attachment with pets were more resistant to the negative effect that loneliness had on their overall general health. Mary Whyam, Chairman of the Society of Companion Animal Studies said, “For a lot of people, having a pet means they feel less lonely and therefore less socially isolated. This is especially true for elderly people living on their own who are less mobile.”
Walking a pet encourages exercise and a Canadian study found that dog owners walked nearly twice as much per week, 300 minutes compared with the 168 minutes, than their dog free counterparts clocked. A California study by the National Cancer Institute gave the dog walkers only 18.9 minutes more each week than people without dogs but even small increases in exercise can have big benefits for older adults for both weight control and cardiovascular conditioning.
Studies have also found that pet owners have lower blood pressure in stressful situations and have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than those without pets. Pet owners over 65 make 30% fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets. A December 2011 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that pet owners had greater self-esteem and tended to be less fearful than people without pets. It has also been shown that pets ease depression and agitation and improve nutrition among nursing home patients with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.
But despite all of these benefits, owning a pet is not for all seniors. Those most likely to benefit are seniors who love and appreciate the joy pets can bring and who are willing to invest the time, attention and financial resources that pet ownership requires. Only seniors willing to take on the personal responsibility for the care and financial commitment of a pet should consider pet ownership.
Allergies are the most common health risk of pet ownership but another health risk to consider for seniors contemplating pet ownership is falls caused by the pets themselves or their belongings. “Over 86,000 people per year have to go to the emergency room because of falls involving their dogs or cats, and these fractures can be devastating for the elderly,” said Judy Steven, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A senior with increasing mobility issues should be cognizant of the fall risk posed by their pets and take steps to mitigate the risk.
Sometimes seniors with mobility issues and chronic health problems often face challenges to providing basic pet care resulting in the heartbreaking decision to give up a pet. Tricia Izadi, a Certified Senior Advisor and Owner of Seniors Helping Seniors (SHS) says “We often see seniors faced with the painful decision to give up a cat or dog because they can no longer provide the care an animal needs, walking a dog, changing a litter box, trips to the vet or shopping for pet food.”
“Our senior caregivers can provide the assistance needed for older adults to keep their beloved pets without sacrificing quality of life for either human or pet,” says Izadi. In addition to helping seniors with pet care, services that Seniors Helping Seniors provides include companion care, light housekeeping, personal care, transportation, respite and assistance to continue enjoy recreational activities such as walking and golf. In most cases the care is provided in the senior’s own home; however, the client may reside with a relative or live in an assisted living community or other group living setting and services can be provide there. Seniors Helping Seniors can be reached at 800-481-2488.
San Diego County community organizations that can help seniors that are thinking about pet ownership or need financial assistance to keep the pets they have include:
Senior Adoption Program, San Diego Humane Society - 619-876-6898 (El Cajon), 619-299-7012 (San Diego)
AniMeals Program - Helen Woodward Center - 858-756-4117, Ext. 341
PAWS Pantry - 619-297-7297
For additional information about Seniors Helping Seniors, its care options and the locations it serves, go to www.homecarebyseniors.com or call 800-481-2488.