If an older adult in your life seems unusually attached to their pet, you aren’t alone. In fact, at times it might appear that your parent or relative prefers their pet over you! Well, not to worry. Both anecdotal and scientific research indicate that the companionship and unconditional love a pet can offer is a very good thing indeed.
Whether it’s your family member’s personal pet, a therapy dog, or even a dog that visits a senior’s residence or assisted living facility, the upside almost always outweighs the challenges. So fetch yourself a comfortable chair as we unleash the treasures of pets. We’ll explore the numerous advantages for healthy senior citizens as well as those facing physical ailments or coping with dementia.
Pets, People and Living a Healthier, Richer Life
Two out of every three households count one or more pets as a member of the family. Why do so many of us choose pet ownership? Pets fill many needs. Some say that dogs and other pets offer unconditional love and ask for nothing in return. Maybe that’s why nearly half of all seniors have a pet.
Authorities on the subject of pets suggest that older people get a special breed of companionship that offers many potentially life-enriching benefits. Before we share some stories of how a therapy dog named Roman and a therapy pony called Chaco are bringing joy into the lives of some lucky older adults, let’s consider some compelling reasons to spend quality time with a furry creature:
- Pets may promote lower blood pressure. Compared to older people who don’t have pets, seniors who share their living space with a pet often have lower blood pressure. Some say merely coming in physical contact or petting a canine has a relaxing effect. Since lowering blood pressure is connected to reducing the chance for heart disease, your parent’s pet could be part of a prescription for a healthier life.
- Pet love conquers loneliness. A survey conducted in 2018 indicated that one in five people age 60 or older are dealing with dementia or some other neurological or mental condition. Plus, many seniors spend far more time alone than they once did, which can lead to increased levels of loneliness and isolation. The presence of a pet can lift our spirits and lighten our mood.
- Pets help us stay present. You won’t find Fido obsessing over yesterday’s walk. After all, there’s so much to do, see and smell right here and right now! Sticking with the moment can be quite beneficial for seniors, especially older folks with dementia.
- Pets keep us moving. Okay, so maybe your dad’s pet goldfish won’t be much help assisting him with the daily chores of life, but some pets can do that brilliantly.
Example: Seniors with hearing issues may depend on their pet to let them know when the phone or doorbell rings, or even when an alarm sounds. In addition, dogs love to take their humans on walks, an easy and highly recommended form of exercise for everyone who is mobile.
- Pets encourage us to loosen up. Whether it’s the morning stiffness of arthritis or discomfort following surgery, being around a pet may help your loved one relax enough to erase the pain. A recent research paper suggests that pet therapy following surgery might lessen the need for pain medication while recouping.
How Volunteer Pets Help Seniors Thrive
It seems like Francesca Vogel was born with an instinct to lend a helping hand. Raised by her grandparents on a 10-acre, rural property, Francesca grew up around animals. (Yes, she even had a pet pony.)
Now an adult with grown children, Vogel was drawn to helping seniors — especially those with dementia or in hospice care. “My father was on hospice and I cared for him for a year at home. Following that experience, I realized how much it meant to me,” she explains.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Francesca Vogel has found a way to combine two of the great loves of her life: giving back to the community and being around animals. A long-time Home Care Liaison for Home Care Assistance, she educates the community about the value of home care services. Her biggest joy revolves around Roman.
Who’s Roman? “Roman is a Doberman and he is a gentle giant,” Vogel says. Following a demanding training and certification regimen, Roman was awarded a service vest. “There are strict guidelines. A behaviorist administers more than 30 tests to make sure the animal has the right temperament.”
Roman was certified by Continuum Hospice. It is Francesca’s great pleasure to make house calls with him. “I was fortunate to have several visits with a lady named Madelyn. She’d been involved in pet rescue and knew the joy it brings. It was lovely to see Roman return the favor to her.”
Francesca and Roman also met a lady with dementia who used to raise Dobermans. “Her daughter couldn’t believe the stories her mom recalled when Roman was present,” she says. “Roman offers unconditional love and doesn’t ask for anything in return. He helps people relax and has a calming effect.”
While Roman is bigger in stature than a lot of service animals, he is by no means the largest.
How about a pony from Texas named Chaco? “I brought him to an assisted living community on Western Day,” Francesca says proudly. “People love being around him.”
Take a look at the joy these animals bring in the video from Orinda Rehab in California, below:
What’s the Best Pet for a Senior?
When most people think about a good pet for a senior, dogs and cats readily come to mind. However, authorities on the subject say they recognize similar benefits for older people who are around rabbits, birds and even fish. Surely this is why so many retirement communities promote a pet-friendly approach.
If you think your parent’s best friend ought to be a dog, what are the best breeds for seniors? Many experts suggest low-energy dogs. What’s a low energy dog? One that demands less exercise in order to be happy and healthy. Low energy canines that might be right for your loved one include pugs, chow chows, pekingese, basset hounds and cavalier king charles spaniels.
Robotic Companions for Seniors with Dementia or Those who Can’t own Pets
It’s not science fiction: robotic pets are now a thing. According to NBC News, they can be just right for people with dementia. A robotic pup can help reduce loneliness and ease anxiety in much the same way as a living, breathing pet. The added benefit is that they don’t need to be cared for or taken on walks and won’t present the risk for injury from a bite or a fall.
Taking a Paws for Safety
Whether your family member already owns a pet, or you are considering one, the major considerations are “which pet is the right one?” and “how do I keep mom or dad safe?” Answer those questions and your loved one will be well on the way to the life-enriching experiences only a pet can provide.