Love at every age

Therapy Pets For The Elderly

Sometimes, a cat’s purr while dozing off on your lap, or a dog’s happy tail-wag is all one needs to make the day a better one. Nobody needs to be a doctor or a scientist to know that owning pets, or just spending time in a pet’s company, is in many ways beneficial for one’s mental and physical health. It’s a general truth that can be applied to anyone, but it has its specific value for seniors. The life of elderly people not only in nursing homes, but in their own homes as well, can often become lonely. Interacting with a furry friend, even for a few hours a day, has been proven to improve the quality of life significantly.

The benefits of owning a pet at an older age

It’s common knowledge that people who own a pet tend to be happier and healthier than those who don’t, but there is scientific proof, too. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention lists the following health benefits:

  • lower blood pressure
  • lower cholesterol levels
  • lower triglyceride levels
  • decreased feelings of loneliness
  • more opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities
  • more opportunities for socialization

But there are many secondary effects, too. The pets, aside from offering non-stop, unconditional love to their owners, tend to live in the moment, so they can help elderly people reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and fear. Animals make seniors happier by providing them with intense feelings of being needed and loved, and lack thereof is one of the most common causes of depression. Also, looking after a pet, learning about them, and looking up information both online and in books is great mental exercise.

How to get involved?

Many assisted living facilities and senior nursing homes offer pet therapy for seniors, officially called Animal Assisted Therapy, as a part of the nursing and therapy routine for healthy as well as the long-term ill patients. Community pets are usually hand-picked from local shelters, and they often are older animals that have lower chances of being adopted, have a calm and friendly temperament, and also benefit from the attention, love and activity that these programs produce.

It often happens that seniors are forced to leave their beloved pet with their family or in a shelter when moving to a nursing home, which is very traumatizing for both of them. Luckily, many nursing homes are realizing the invaluable positive effects and are opening their doors for seniors together with their pets. These pet-friendly nursing homes usually offer a special Pet Care Coordinator, who always makes sure that all the pets are well taken care of, in case their owners are not capable of completely caring for them. Although it’s still not common, we’re getting there. I couldn’t find a comprehensive list of pet-friendly senior-care facilities in Dayton, but they definitely exist (e.g., Spring Hills Singing Woods Assisted Living). If you know of any in the area, please leave them in the comments, so others can become aware.

If you’d like to help enrich the life of a senior with a small, happy companion, there’s a dedicated charity called “Pets For The Elderly” that offers guidance and financial support for anyone over the age of 60 who wants to adopt an animal from a shelter. You can always send a few dollars to support this beautiful, noble cause.

The Risks

Unfortunately, owning a pet also imposes certain risks, and even I can’t leave this part out. Small pets can increase the risk of an injury, either outside during a walk or in the home. People with weakened immune system or dust mite allergies should also think twice before getting a pet, as it may lead to deterioration.

Before getting a pet, it is extremely important to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which animal would be right for my living conditions?
  • Which breed and what age should I get?
  • Can I afford caring for it over the next several years?
  • Are there ways to take care of the pet when I’m no longer able to?

It is important to not only accept the joy and happiness that pets keep giving, but also to realize the responsibility that comes with owning them and caring for them. If your senior loved one owns a pet, lives in a pet-friendly nursing home, or if the senior home offers Animal Assisted Therapy, find out about the ways you can get involved in the care, even if it’s just a small, regular donation. Pets have so much love to give us, it would be selfish not to repay them, one way or another.