Growing older holds many unwelcome realities, such as having to live alone or having to leave your home. Both can lead to loneliness and depression but numerous studies, including one cited in the December 2, 2011 issue of the European Journal of Medical Research (EJMR), indicate the psychological and physiological benefits of pet ownership or visitations among the elderly.
The most concerning illness among the elderly is loneliness, according to the nonprofit organization Pets for the Elderly. As loved ones, especially a spouse, are lost, the sense of being alone can be overwhelming. Having a pet live with you later in life provides a constant companion, which can help offset depression that may accompany loneliness. In addition, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health showed an increase in alertness and overall well-being for seniors living in residential centers that have pets. It’s no surprise that visiting pet programs are growing in popularity at assisted living facilities, while some have a “resident” pet living among the seniors. Some elder communities, including Emeritus Senior Living, even allow residents to have their own pets, which can help reduce the grief associated with having to leave a beloved pet behind after moving from home.
Having a pet also opens up a world of new activities for the elderly. From meeting people on dog walks to getting involved in animal-centered charities and organizations, the opportunities to interact with like-minded people increase greatly with pet ownership.
Living with a pet also creates a routine. A cat or dog forces you to get out of bed, even on days you think you’d rather curl up under the covers. Taking them for a walk, to the groomers, the vet or the pet store gets you out of the house and on a schedule. Pets provide a purpose to each day, similar to the sense you felt in raising children.
Overall, seniors with pets tend to visit the doctor less frequently for minor physical issues. The EJMR study found that elderly dog owners without a backyard, a likely situation in an assisted living center, spent an average of almost two-and-a-half hours walking their dogs. A regular and healthy exercise routine is the result.
Several studies indicate lower stress levels in people with pets. Whether it’s the soothing act of petting an animal or the comforting sense of a companion, an American Heart Association report suggests that a pet reduces stress reocurence in people without a strong social support structure.
The same report found that people who own a pet and are taking antihypertensive medication for heart problems perform tasks better than those without a pet. Study participants from both groups had a 74 percent accuracy rate in the first round. Those using medication only scored 75 percent in the second test, while those who also had pets recorded an 18 percent improvement from the initial results.
In addition to research that suggests lower blood pressure and cholesterol result from pet ownership, an Australian study found tension and confusion also were lowered among participants at a nursing home with a resident dog. These same participants, as well as those at a center with a weekly visit from a therapy dog, also registered a decrease in fatigue.
Emilio has helped start three no-kill animal shelters in his city. He is currently organizing and signing up volunteers for a mobile pet adoption for the shelters.