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home : columns : columns February 6, 2016

5/27/2014 5:14:00 PM
Pets play pivotal role for older adults
Eleanor Simonsen and Oliver as a therapy dog. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee
+ click to enlarge
Eleanor Simonsen and Oliver as a therapy dog. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee

You and your dog just got back from visiting a friend, an older adult who lives alone. Every week you've been over to visit her with Fido, and it seems to light up her life. She really perks up and smiles when she pets him. In fact your friend is deciding to adopt an older dog for herself.

Researchers are now finding that the most serious disease for older adults is not cancer or heart disease: It's loneliness. Loneliness can become an unwelcome companion as we get older, and can lead to depression as well as physical problems. Older adults who recently lost a spouse or who had other significant changes in their life are more likely to become lonely or depressed.

It's only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond. The American Heart Association has linked having pets, especially dogs, with a reduced risk for heart disease and greater longevity. Researchers have also found that interacting with pets lowers blood pressure and pulse rate.

Studies show that the health of older adults who suffer from depression decline rapidly compared to seniors who are active, always around other people or with pets at home. Pets also provide a feeling of safety for those living alone, and decrease feelings of isolation. Pets can help older adults by supplying companionship and affection. Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.

Older adults with pets in the home are more likely to meet people and start new friendships. Pets keep older adults more active in the community. Pet parents have common interests and activities that provide the opportunity to build social bonds with new individuals. They may even gain a new interest in having their furry friend become a therapy visitor to assisted livings or other health facilities or schools.

Pets provide routine and a sense of responsibility. Having a pet that requires regular outdoor activity helps seniors stay connected to life. The daily walk out in the fresh air with their furry friend can keep them healthier longer, and linked to the community.

Older adults also keep active by feeding, grooming and caring for their pets. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society demonstrated that independently living older adults who had pets tended to have better physical health and mental wellbeing than those that did not. They were more active, coped better with stress, and had better overall health than their contemporaries without pets.

Pets benefit, too, particularly when older folks adopt older pets. An older dog is harder to adopt out of a shelter than younger dogs or puppies. So when a senior adopts an older dog, it gets to go from pound to paradise. Since older adults are retired, they have lots of time to devote to a previously unwanted pet.

Because people age so differently, the decision to become a pet parent needs to be made carefully. If you don't like change or have physical limitations, you may not be a good candidate. You'll benefit most from having a pet whose needs are compatible with your lifestyle and physical capabilities.

Pet parenting may not be the right answer for some older folks. Luckily, it isn't always necessary for someone to take on the full responsibility of pet parenting to reap the physical and emotional benefits of interacting with a four-legged companion. If you're not able to handle the demands of having a pet, you can still ask to walk a neighbor's dog, or volunteer at an animal shelter. A visit from a therapy dog could work wonders for someone who has physical limitations.

Using pets to offset emotional and physical problems and to improve quality of life is especially beneficial to seniors. It takes just a bit of careful planning to find the right mixture, whether it's becoming a pet parent or helping out at a shelter. Most animal shelters or rescue groups welcome volunteers to help care for homeless pets or assist at adoption events. Even short periods of time spent with a pet can benefit you and the animal.

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