In an assisted living home three seniors sit quietly in a community living room space. Rose is thinking about how far away her children and grandchildren are, missing their company. Bert keeps mentally going over the mistakes he has made in life, fixated on what people did wrong and how the situations should have been rectified. Betty is thinking about her aching back and joints, completely internally focused. A worker at the home opens the door to the garden and in runs a small dog, wagging its tail and barking. “Buddy!” laughs Bert, as the dog runs up to him to be petted. Rose and Betty start talking about the dog’s funny personality, laughing at his antics to hold Bert’s attention. In a room that had been quiet and filled with negative thoughts, feelings and emotions, there are now positive interactions and laughter. Since pets can drastically improve seniors’ health holistically, collaborations between law-makers, care facility workers, senior centers and pet shelters are needed to better facilitate these healthy interactions.
THERAPEUTIC LITTLE FRIENDS
Many of us love pets. Some people prefer dogs, cats, birds or fish, but the presence of living creatures around us just brightens up the room. Animals lack most judgments and societal expectations that we can receive from other people. Pets are typically pleasant to be with to not feel so isolated and alone. For centuries people have shared bonds with pets and research now well documents many therapeutic health benefits from animals. The Mayo Clinic (2015) explains that pet therapy can be divided into two main categories: “animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities.” Animal assisted therapy encompasses animals being a part of therapy for specific physical or psychological ailments. Other animal-assisted activities can improve quality of life in general (The Mayo Clinic, 2015, p. 1).
PHYSICAL HEALTH BENEFITS FROM PETS
Quality time with pets is healthy for us in multiple ways. Long and Fagan (2015) stated that studies have documented short and long-term health benefits from spending just 15 minutes interacting with an animal. These interactions prompt the release of certain chemicals that reduce stress, lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, and may decrease the risk for stroke and heart disease (Long and Fagan, 2015). The Mayo Clinic (2015) stated that many people can benefit from animal therapy. Some groups who are helped more significantly include:
- Children having dental or medical procedures
- People who live in long-term care facilities
- Those being treated for cancer
- Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- People who struggle with depression or anxiety
These health benefits can come through professionally organized animal assisted therapy, like those often initiated for the groups listed above, or through more informal daily animal-assisted activities, like taking a dog for its daily walk. The College of Veterinary Medicine (2017) clarified that some health benefits may begin in earlier in life, specifically from owning a dog that is closely bonded to you. It is not certain if people who are healthier are more likely to get dogs or if people who get dogs become healthier as a byproduct of owning a dog. The more bonded we are with dogs the more likely we are to take them for regular walks. Walking is an excellent form of exercise that is not too strenuous on our bodies, but still works out our muscles, joints and cardiovascular systems. Regularly exercising contributes to longevity and better quality of life by providing physical, social and mental benefits (The College of Veterinary Medicine, 2017). Who knew that regularly walking a dog could be so advantageous?
PSYCHOLOGICAL HEALTH BENEFITS FROM PETS
And, health benefits from spending time with pets do not stop with just the physical. There are many psychological benefits from time spent with animals. Long and Fagan (2015) wrote that according to psychologist Penny B. Donnenfeld, pets can help seniors remember past events and focus their thoughts on something present, outside of themselves and positive rather than completely inward, negative and isolated. Our minds can seem to get stuck dwelling on negative events. Pets can help us to stay in the present rather than fixate on regretted past issues or dreaded future events. Animals can also help us to exercise our brains by bringing back old memories. (Long and Fagan, 2015). The Mayo Clinic (2018) states that even a short visit from a therapy animal can drastically improve mood. It brings a smile and gives us stories to share with one another (Mayo Clinic, 2018).
Long and Fagan (2015) also explain that owning a pet can give people a sense of purpose and accomplishment, knowing that a living creature depends on them and loves them unconditionally. It can help to establish routine with feeding and exercise times. People feel needed, useful, loved and secure. It can also help people feel a sense of giving back, not always being on the receiving side of assistance (Long and Fagan, 2015).
SOCIAL HEALTH BENEFITS FROM PETS
The College of Veterinary Medicine (2017) wrote that owning a dog makes one’s life more active, while also making it more social. Spending time with pets often gets people up out of the house, which is healthy physically, and also socially (The College of Veterinary Medicine, 2017). Snee (2012) explains that pets decrease depression, anxiety and isolation, increasing “social interactions” (Snee, 2012, p. 1). When we get out in the community and meet with people, the health benefits extend beyond physical and psychological to incorporate social. And, we will have a great conversation topic for new acquaintances through our pets. Relationships are healthy. They help people to focus on others and feel understood and connected. Animals themselves can provide some of that needed companionship. Then they also provide an avenue for relationships to be formed with other people, which is vitally important for our social health.
CHALLENGES TO SENIOR PET OWNERSHIP
So, since it is well established that pets are healthy for seniors’ emotional, physical and social health, why are many seniors not allowed or able to have a pet? Unfortunately, there are also many barriers seniors face in order to have and care for a pet. Long and Fagan (2015) explain that the cost of buying and caring for a pet is often a formidable obstacle for seniors to overcome. Animal shelters typically give animals to new owners for a fee. That fee, however, might not fit in a senior’s budget. For people often living on set incomes, this can be a huge barrier. Some shelters spend more than $2,000 on each dog making sure that it is vaccinated, well-groomed and trained. Waiving the fee to purchase a dog may not always be possible. And, that’s just the beginning. “The cost of owning a dog ranges from $1,314 to $1,843 a year, depending on its size and includes the costs for food, medication, toys, litter, health insurance, spay/neutering, collars/leashes, cages/crates, training, and grooming” (p. 2). Estimated expenses for other common pets are:
- Rabbit: $1,055/year
- Cat: $1,035/year
- Guinea pig: $705/year
- Fish: $235/year (Long and Fagan, 2015)
Let’s say that a senior who struggles with Alzheimer’s and depression was able to cut back on expenses or make needed arrangements, to afford a cat. But, what if that senior lives in a nursing home that has a no pet policy? Snee (2012) writes that 18 states have laws regarding animals allowed in nursing homes. Washington allows seniors living in nursing homes the right to spend time with pets, while other states fear decreased sanitation, potential allergies of residents, and/or legal action being taken against them. 7 states will only allow a specific number of animals in a facility and 5 states mandate that a staff member be responsible for each pet (Snee, 2012).
Then, what if that same senior who wanted the cat was also getting weak and feared not being able to properly care for the pet? Long and Fagan (2015) further explain that other common challenges include decreased strength, movement, allergies and possibly the unwillingness to try new things. Taking care of pets requires the ability to get up and down multiple times for feeding, letting them go outside, cleaning messes or litter boxes, etc. Diseases common for seniors combined with decreased strength with aging can result in them feeling ill-qualified to own and care for a pet. Deteriorating health can reduce independence, freedom and hope (Long and Fagan, 2015). But… we don’t have to allow this to dictate pet ownership for our seniors.
There are various things that we can work on changing together to make pets more available to seniors. To start with, awareness needs to continue to grow about the benefits for seniors, specifically, in having close, quality time with pets. Secondly, certain laws, mindsets, and commitments may need to change in order to facilitate this need. Snee (2012) wrote that some advocacy programs for seniors have started partnering with nursing homes to change laws and policies in order for senior health to be optimized with the help of pets (Snee, 2012). Thirdly, organization and communication are needed between groups to make these needed changes truly happen, ensuring that they are carried out well over time.
Long and Fagan (2015) explain that some animal shelters already have programs matching senior pets with seniors based on compatibility, personality, preferences and needs. Some shelters waive adoption fees, give various discounts, or provide things like leashes and collars for free. Animal shelters could also decrease costs of pet adoption, helping seniors and animals alike. This would also reduce instances of animal euthanasia. Financial assistance could be available to the shelters from “pet care/nutrition manufacturers or other charitable groups” to offset the costs of keeping the pets in order to allow for these discounts (Long and Fagan, 2015).
Senior Centers also need to play their part. Long and Fagan (2015) continue that allowing pets in senior care homes takes extensive organization and oversight to meet health standards, protect residents with allergies, keep pets from being tripping hazards, and ensure proper care for the pets. Some centers have even hired a staff member to oversee pet care. A specific room could be designated as the pet room where seniors could spend therapeutic time with the animals, effectively reducing loneliness and depression. The money spent on the pet would not increase costs when balanced with the reduction in medication and treatment for the seniors (2015).
Partnership between animal shelters, senior living facilities and veterinary doctors could work together to provide seniors with appropriate animals for their physical, psychological and social health. Long and Fagan (2015) explain that veterinary doctors could subsidize pet expenses for seniors, getting tax deductions for the donations. A pet’s health, temperament, and living space can be evaluated and decided upon for the safety and health of the seniors. For treating things like grief, isolation or depression, pets could even be prescribed in place of medication (2015).
Moreover, incorporating pets in the lives of the seniors around us and in facilities will take work, but the smiles, laughter, relationships, and holistic health of seniors make that work a small price to pay. People are often willing to help if someone is willing to put forth the effort to educate, organize and oversee positive changes being made and carried out over time. And, this responsibility does not have to all go on one person. A small group could organize to delegate tasks and cover all bases. What connections and resources do you have and where do you see a need? Lastly, what are you going to do about it?