Want to stay healthier and happy while aging? Get a pet!
BY DEBBIE PAGE
Her eyes light up and her smile becomes warm and genuine as she pulls Katie onto her lap. Madeline, a Statesville senior, beams as she strokes her snow-white fluffball Pomeranian and shares her love for her pup and their journey to living here.
Madeline, along with her mother and Katie, moved from New Jersey to a Statesville retirement community after her father’s death 12 years ago. Her brother George, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and local ROTC instructor, his wife, and their three children urged them to move to North Carolina to be near them.
Katie came into their lives quite by accident. After they lost their beloved cocker spaniel, Madeline and her mother swore off dog ownership until they encountered an 8-week-old white bundle of love being sold near a Walmart.
“I petted her and said to my mother, ‘I want this dog,’ ” said Madeline. “I love her and would never part with her.”
When she was a puppy, the peppy Katie loved playing with toys and taking walks. Now that both are less mobile, Madeline and Katie spend their time watching TV or sharing meals.
Katie loves her dog biscuits and sharing a bit of Madeline’s dessert at mealtime. “If I say, ‘Who wants a milky bone?’ she runs to the cabinet and waits in her spot for her treat.”
Since her mother’s death, Madeline’s scoliosis and other health issues have limited her mobility, so having Katie as a companion is key to Madeline’s emotional well-being.
“I feel good having her here. She helps me. I like having her here, especially at night,” said Madeline. “She keeps me company.”
“Katie’s so sweet. She licks my face. I really enjoy her. Everyone who sees her comments on how cute she is!”
Creighton Gibson, co-owner of the local Home Instead Senior Care, believes that having a pet is important for seniors.
“Pets can serve as a great companion to seniors and help combat feelings of loneliness,” said Gibson, who co-owns the business with wife Tracey. “The comfort and support that a pet provides helps to ease feelings of anxiety and depression. I’ve seen this firsthand with the seniors that we help here in Statesville.”
“Studies show that pet ownership and interaction can improve seniors’ overall health. Seniors who own or interact with pets are more likely to be active. Whether it is walking a dog or volunteering at an animal shelter, pets help get seniors moving, which could lead to lower blood pressure and stress levels.”
“Pets not only provide companionship but give seniors a new purpose in life. In owning a pet, seniors are responsible for feeding, walking and caring for their animal. Seniors grow very attached to their pets, and it’s nice to see them in the caretaker role,” Gibson added.
Social isolation is becoming an increasingly common issue, with one in five Americans reporting they feel lonely. Seniors are especially vulnerable to these feelings, with nearly half saying they often feel lonely.
A Home Instead survey of 1,000 seniors age 65 or older this year found that regular interaction with animals can help to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness in older adults. Interaction with pets, even occasionally, can have a big impact on older adults. Petting a dog, holding a cat, or enjoying a bird’s singing can bring joy to a lonely.
Nearly half of the 400 older pet owners in the survey reported stress relief, sense of purpose and exercise as leading benefits to owning a pet.
Eighty-two percent of senior animal owners surveyed said they would not consider moving to a senior living community without their pet.
More than five in six (86 percent) of survey respondents say they would feel lonelier and less happy without their pet; 58 percent say they would not be as healthy without their pet; and 67 percent would feel heartbroken if they were unable to keep their pet.
Seniors who live alone or are widowed showed having even more benefits from pet interaction. Eight-three percent of pet owners who live alone or are widowed/divorced, or separated reported that pets make them feel loved, compared to 71 percent of those who are married and 64 percent of those living with others and owning a pet.
Pets provide an opportunity to socialize with other people, further reducing feelings of loneliness. Since the goal is to keep seniors safe and happy in their own homes for as long as possible, caregivers often help seniors with pet care, taking seniors and their pets to dog parks or vet visits.
Steve Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), a nonprofit research and education organization, noted, “There is a strong connection between heart health and pet ownership or interaction,” Feldman said. “Pet owners are more likely to get recommended levels of exercise, have lower blood pressure and experience reduced levels of stress. Pets have even been shown to aid in recovery after a heart attack.”
Home Instead caregivers have found that even occasional interactions with pets prove to be beneficial for older adults.
Elisabeth Van Every, communications and outreach coordinator for Pet Partners, a nonprofit North American therapy animal organization agrees.
“Research also shows animal interaction can help perceptions of pain and discomfort, and improve motivation for treatment protocols for diseases such as cancer by helping individuals feel more focused and positive moving forward,” said Van Every. “Even interactions for half an hour a week can make a difference.”
Another study highlighted by Pet Partners found that a walking program matching sedentary adults with therapy animals resulted in an increase in steps over a year period. Participants said their motivation for adherence was “the dogs need us to walk them.”
Seniors do not have to own a pet to benefit from interaction. Visiting a cat or dog café, going for walk at the dog park, and fostering pets until they are adopted or for deployed military members are other options. Volunteering at a rescue organization, animal shelter or zoo can also help seniors stay active and help pets in need.
If a loved one is in a care community, family members can ask the facility to consider bringing in a therapy animal group.
To help older adults determine what type of pet interaction is right for them, Home Instead Senior Care offers free information and tips to help seniors incorporate animals into their lives. Non-traditional pets like rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, fish, and turtles are other options that require less care.
To learn more, visit PetsandSeniors.com or contact your local Home Instead Senior Care office.