We all know that there is a fine line between being alone and being lonely. Loneliness can become an unwelcome companion far too easily for older adults in our society. Whether it’s for physical or cognitive reasons, older adults tend to stay inside, and this isolation adversely affects all four of the columns of a successful life: mind, body, spirit, and community.
Enter a pet…that companion who is always happy to see you (perhaps not effusively, as some cat owners will attest), who depends on you, and who, for the most part, is a joy to have around. Pets are among the few elements that can shore up every column of life, at any stage of life, and they can play an even more powerful role as we get older.
According to a recent poll by the Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel, 90% of seniors say they are less lonely and much happier since adopting an animal. Pets create structure in the homes in which they live. For older adults, this structure can provide routines for exercise and socialization that might not otherwise exist. After all, you might not want to get out of bed, but your pet needs you to!
A recent study cited in McCall’s Magazine found that older people who own pets visit the doctor 16% less often than those without pets. Pets have been proven to increase the mental alertness of people with dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease, and significantly increase the survival rate during the first year after discharge from the hospital.
Pet owners, according to a study at Baker Medical Research Institute, have lower blood pressure and triglyceride and cholesterol levels than do non-owners. In addition, all that petting, cuddling, and unconditional love significantly reduces stress levels. “If this was a drug, it would be marketed tomorrow,” said Dr. Roger Lavelle in reference to the study.
Pets are also the best ego booster in the world…they think you are the greatest! Pets fill the desire to be useful, offering the very satisfying duty of taking care of another living thing. At the end of the day, having a pet means that you have made a promise to be involved in another life. This commitment, while being one of the most positive decisions you can make, comes with responsibility.
Animals come with their own sets of requirements, so it’s important to choose wisely. Different breeds of dogs and cats tend to have specific characteristics and needs, so it’s critical to be realistic in determining the type of pet you want and the type you can handle, which are not always the same thing.
What is your temperament? If you need things to be neat or if unpredictability is difficult for you to handle, then a puppy or large animal may not be a good fit. Do you want to cuddle, or would you prefer an animal that is less “needy”? For the non-cuddler, a bird or fish may be the best option.
What is your physical condition? Most dogs need to be walked A LOT. While cats can live indoors all of the time, their litter box needs to be changed regularly, an activity which requires bending over. Do you have the stamina to train a puppy or kitten?
What are your living conditions? A big animal requires a big space. If you are living in a facility, you need to confirm the agreements regarding ownership of animals. Some places, including apartments, have a size limitation on pets, don’t allow animals with fur, and/or require an additional fee or deposit for pets.
Are finances an issue? Pets cost money. Not only is there food and possibly litter, but things like medications, toys, and grooming add to the costs. According to the ASPCA, not counting an injury or illness, a puppy can cost more than $810 during its first year, while a fish only costs around $235 to get set up in an aquarium.
Is the pet the right age? A young pet may outlive its owner. Birds especially have long life spans. Yet it’s also important that the pet isn’t too old, since it may start to have physical limitations and require more vet visits which could be a problem if finances or transportation is an issue.
Once you’ve answered these questions, you’re ready to find the type of companionship that is the best fit. There are many options, and the Humane Society might be a good place to start. They can provide a pet for a lower cost than a breeder. Additionally, shelter employees often know an animal’s personality and can help make the best match. Many shelters also have pets besides dogs and cats that can range from birds to snakes to rabbits.
If you aren’t ready for the commitment of a pet or if there are some limiting cognitive or physical issues, you might consider a robotic pet such as Hasbro’s new line of companion pets, Joy for All. While you probably won’t confuse the companion pets for real animals, they provide a good substitute and have proven especially effective for folks with dementia.
At Senior Citizens Inc. we know the therapeutic power that pets can provide with their unconditional companionship. A few years ago, we began a pet food program for our Meals on Wheels clients so that both our clients and their beloved pets can remain healthy. Thanks to donations of pet food and grants, we’ve now begun to provide flea and preventive medications as well
The Hasbro Joy for All pets are a big hit at our Byck Adult Daytime Care Center, where clients who previously struggled to communicate are now smiling and talking to their “pet.” And if you’ve visited SCI in the past few years, you’ve met Petunia, our fluffy ambassador of cat love. She has quite the fan base among people stopping by just to visit her. She sits in on Learning Center classes, loves to attend meetings, and has a knack for knowing when someone needs pet petting therapy.
While all of these praises of pets may sound like a tall order for a small bundle of fur to fill, I promise you they are up to the challenge. And if you need further proof or if it’s just an occasional fix for pet companionship you need, Petunia stands ready for your visit!