Pets Fill a Special Role in Seniors' Lives
Having a pet can be a boon to body and soul — especially as we age. Seniors can benefit greatly from pet ownership
Pets offer companionship, something to nurture, unconditional love, and a sense of security in new situations. And pets can relieve stress, which may help explain why studies have found that pet owners have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
The nurturing role
Taking care of an animal that cares about you and responds to you can help with loneliness and depression.
The fact that you have to attend to a living creature gives structure to your life. If you have to feed your pet, you're more likely to get moving in the morning. The opportunity to nurture fills an essential need that can no longer be filled by grown children or by grandchildren who may not live near.
Pets provide us with the kind of nonjudgmental love we all need but probably don't get enough of. Everyone needs to laugh and play, no matter what our age. There's great joy in tossing a ball around or playing keep-away with your dog's favorite toy.
The social role
Pets can also fill a social role in the lives of seniors who are uncomfortable with social relationships, or in starting new ones after a spouse has passed away. Having a pet offers an opportunity to meet other people, to talk about your pet.
To test this statement, a group of researchers outfitted older adults with tape recorders, then sent them out to walk their dogs. They found the dogs accounted for a lot of conversations. The owners talked constantly to their pets, and when they encountered a friend, the dogs were a major topic of conversation — even when the pet owners were walking without their dogs.
This socializing effect is also true for people who are disabled. If they have a dog, peers are much more likely to approach them.
The physical benefits
Pets also carry physiological benefits. For example, walking a dog is exercise for both you and your pet.
Just petting an animal lowers your blood pressure (and that of the animal). Older adults who take care of a pet tend to do better at eating, exercising, caring for themselves, and getting around.
Some studies have found that pet owners have lower cholesterol levels.
Older adults who own pets visit their health care providers less often than those who don't have pets, according to one study. That's true even for people experiencing major stress, such as dealing with the loss of a loved one.
Finding a pet
If you are interested in getting a pet, contact your local humane society or animal control society, rescue organization, shelter, a veterinarian, or a dog trainer. Avoid mismatches by selecting a pet appropriate to your lifestyle and mobility.
Training a boisterous puppy that will require a lot of exercise might seem too daunting. An adult dog is a better choice, but where do you look? A lot of adult dogs given up to shelters are the last to be adopted. But some of them make the best pets for seniors because they are already housebroken and well trained, with good temperaments.
When choosing a pet, keep in mind these factors:
Cost of food and veterinary care
Any allergies or lung disease you might have
Risk of tripping hazards from smaller pets
Age and breed of animal
The time and energy needed to care for the pet
People undergoing an organ transplant or other forms of immunosuppression should talk with their doctor before getting a pet.
If you don't feel up to having a pet at home full time, one of your local animal societies might be able to link you with a volunteer willing to share a pet with you for a few hours each week. Many rescue organizations need temporary foster homes for cats and dogs that are awaiting adoption, and will provide food and medical care for animals that are fostered in private homes. And in some programs, volunteers bring pets into nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, and even hospitals.
- Gomez, Wanda, RN, Ph.D.
- MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician