The piece of lettuce in Marion's* hand trembled slightly as she stretched her arm towards the giraffe's lofty mouth.
The moment green leaf met purple tongue, a rare smile danced across her face and a laugh flew past her lips. Laura, Marion's middle-aged daughter, couldn't help but grin as she witnessed the touching exchange.
Laura knew that a trip to Africa had always been at the top of Marion's bucket list—a list that life had not allowed her to complete. Going to see the giraffes with her daughter at the local zoo was the closest Marion would ever get to the Serengeti.
But it was enough.
"She was so thrilled to get to be so close to the giraffe; she told me she could check that item off of her life list after coming here," recalls Tim Tetzlaff, Director of Conservation and Communications at the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens in Naples, FL.
Even though Marion and her daughter don't come to the zoo anymore, Tetzlaff fondly remembers their visits. They are just one of the countless caregiver-elder duos that he's gotten to know over the years. "We have so many visitors who enjoy sharing time across generations. From grandparents and their grandchildren, to adult children and their parents who need some extra assistance."
Advantages of animal encounters for the elderly
Interfacing with animals on any level—from taking a periodic trip to the zoo, to owning a personal pet—can offer numerous advantages for both caregivers and their elderly loved ones.
Animals can help lower blood pressure, and increase feelings of happiness and wellbeing in people of all ages, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Zoo excursions also get an aging adult out and about, increasing their opportunity exercise and social interaction, while decreasing their risk for developing symptoms of depression.
And, for those living with Alzheimer's disease, Tetzlaff says he has often witnessed how spending a few hours strolling among the animal exhibits can bring back fond childhood memories.
Taking a trip to the local zoo or farm can also be a wonderful way to expose your loved one to the pros of animal interaction, without risking the problems that often arise for elderly pet owners.
Pets can be costly, especially for a retired adult living on a fixed income. Then there's the fact that an elder's needs can change in an instant. A single occurrence—such as a fall—can result in a hefty hospital bill and can even land an aging adult in an assisted living community or nursing home that may not allow them to keep their beloved Fido or Frisky.
Making the most out of a trip to the zoo
Like most things caregiving, a zoo excursion with an elderly loved one should be carefully planned in order to reduce stress for caregiver and elder, and to decrease the chances of anything going awry.
Here are some tips for mapping out a successful day at the zoo with an elderly loved one:
- Check the forecast: Especially in the summertime, you'll want to plan your outing for a day that's not too hot or humid. If you absolutely have to go on a warmer day, try starting your trip earlier in the morning—not only will it be cooler, but the zoo will likely be less crowded as well.
- Preemptively plan your route: Obtain a map of the zoo and a schedule of shows and special events ahead of time. A few days before your trip, sit down with your loved one and chart out a preferred course. This will ensure that you hit all of the exhibits you and your loved one are interested in, without having to deal with the stress of getting lost or wasting time.
- Be aware of available perks: Zoos often offerspecial discounts for older adults in the form of reduced ticket prices or free admission to shows and attractions. When it comes to special exhibits and presentations, most zoos offer priority seating for elders with limited mobility or vision problems, as well as auditory assistance devices to help the hearing impaired.
- Don't be afraid to ask for assistance: Staff members and volunteers are there to make sure that visitors of all ages and physical abilities enjoy themselves and experience everything the zoo has to offer. For example, Tetzlaff says that in the giraffe feeding exhibit, staff members regularly move ropes and hand out longer lettuce leafs to elders who are in wheel chairs, or who have trouble reaching. Don't hesitate to ask for any special accommodations that would help your loved one.
Ultimately, a trip to the zoo can provide you and your loved one with a much-needed escape from the pressures and challenges of daily life.
Yvonne Lombardo, a long-time volunteer at the Naples Zoo, puts it this way, "The zoo creates a separate realm of wonder—an escape from the worries of the outside world—where people of all ages can experience moments of excitement and peace."
*Names have been changed.