While the memories of a cherished childhood pet can bring comfort to an aging person, even more benefits come from maintaining that human-animal bond throughout life. Even more than the health benefits of owning a pet the right pet serves as a trusted confidant, coach, and counselor.
For seniors who are not able to own a pet, there are a number of options: You can offer to walk a neighbor's dog, cat sit for the weekend, or volunteer at a local shelter. We don't have to be full-time pet owners to benefit from animal companions' presence in our lives.
“Senior citizens can experience a greater quality of life, whether it be from the ownership of a pet or simply from periodic visits with a furry friend," says Dr. Lisa MacKay of the Veterinary Wellness Center of New Haven. “The human-animal bond is evident and can be witnessed in the elderly...There is overwhelming evidence that people are living longer, more productive lives because of their pets."
1. Pets as Social Directors
One of the best-known benefits of pet ownership—which many of us learned as children—is the emotional support a pet provides. And, as we age—no matter how well and actively we do so—we lose important people and relationships. A cat or a dog, or whatever pet we choose, can provide much-needed love, support, and continuity.
An AARP Bulletin poll of people over 50 found that companionship was the top reason that 71% of respondents aged 65 and older chose to get a pet. Among that 71%, dogs (38%) and cats (24%) were the most popular, along with birds (3%), reptiles (2%), and others (4%).
In addition to providing companionship, owning a pet can be a real boost to your social life. Simply needing to walk your dog both gets you outside and gives you the perfect conversation-starter. “Dog owners were five times as likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than pet owners overall," according to another recent study that confirmed that owning a pet helps you meet new people.
Your pet can give you an excuse to talk with someone you normally wouldn't and to make new connections. Plus, the more active your pet is, the more active your social life may become. Perhaps that accidental meeting while exercising in the park will lead to dates both for you and your four-legged friend.
2. Pets as Personal Trainers
In addition to the emotional benefits, according to the CDC (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), owning a pet can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels. The companionship of a pet also can increase an active senior's opportunities for outdoor activities and exercise.
Pets are particularly good at motivating their owners to continue to keep going. Plus, if your goal is to commit to tracking your progress with a fitness wearable or a fitness program, you may find your pet to be a more tolerable accountability buddy than a neighbor or close relative.
An effective personal trainer introduces variety into your routines to keep you engaged and progressing. While he can't provide specific corrections, your pet certainly can help keep things lively. Both of you can share in the benefits of regular exercise, which may include achieving a healthy weight and helping to maintain flexibility and good balance.
Not sure where to start? According to the AARP Bulletin poll, among those aged 65 and older:
- 61% walk with their dog to maintain or improve their fitness
- 26% regularly play catch—whether with a ball or a Frisbee
- 33% exercise with their dogs more than once a day
Of those polled, 29% claim to work out more now that they have a dog. “Animals can spark the interest of seniors who may have otherwise lost interest in activities that they used to enjoy," says Dr. MacKay. “Companion animals can be used for various types of therapy and in most cases can reduce anxiety in humans."
3. Pet Therapy for Seniors
“There is something quite magical that happens when a Lab enters a nursing home," says Penny Gray. “Residents who are mostly unresponsive to family visits just come alive."
Gray, who is owner/trainer of CaveInn Labradors in North Central Iowa, knows from personal experience. Even as her Mom progresses through dementia and all that that implies, “The very best thing I've learned I can do is not really anything 'I can do.' It is simply to show up with our Boy Wonder 'Robin.' He is now a senior himself but still a stunning black Lab."
“There is a magnetic effect as walkers and wheelchairs make their way to where Robin sits beside Mom. In his unspoken conversation with each of them, he reminds them of being a child on the farm, raising their own kids with a dog that meant the world to them."
In addition to the warm feelings, a growing body of research supports the therapeutic value of pet ownership for seniors with and without specific health challenges. The health benefits of owning a pet are incredible. Owners of pets have been shown to have higher one-year survival rates after heart attacks, and dog ownership, specifically, may contribute to reducing cardiovascular disease risk.
As Gray says, “There is hardly a way to describe how the presence of a therapy dog draws out the positive emotions that often are suppressed for those who are confined to a wheelchair. In the time they are with a canine companion, they are free."
“I've witnessed such heartwarming moments," says Gray, "that, even if Mom will forget we have been there the moment we walk away, I know her soul is alive and she felt happiness."
Love animals but can't have one? Consider donating your time to a local shelter or animal hospital. Read more about how to volunteer your time helping.