The Healing Power of Pets for Elderly People

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For elderly pet owners, who often live alone or in group facilities, pets can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase social interaction and physical activity and help them learn.

"A new pet can stimulate someone to read up on an animal or breed, which can be very mentally stimulating and important at that age," says Dr. Katharine Hillestad, a veterinarian with the office of Doctors Foster and Smith in Rhinelander, Wis., which provides online advice and retails pet supplies and pharmaceuticals.

Pets provide other intangibles. "Dogs and other pets live very much in the here and now. They don't worry about tomorrow. And tomorrow can be very scary for an older person. By having an animal with that sense of now, it tends to rub off on people," says Dr. Jay P. Granat, a New Jersey psychotherapist.

And pets can reduce depression and lessen loneliness. "Older pet owners have often told us how incredibly barren and lonely their lives were without their pet's companionship, even when there were some downsides to owning an active pet," says Linda Anderson, who founded the Angel Animals Network in Minneapolis with her husband Allen. The couple speaks about the joys of pet ownership and has authored books.

In "Angel Dogs: Divine Messengers of Love" (New World Library, 2005), the Andersons tell the story of Bonnie, a golden retriever that quickly became an indispensable member of her adoptive family. "We never felt alone when Bonnie was in the house. As we aged and tended to go out less, she provided us with loving companionship," say her owners, Marjorie and Richard Douse.

Psychologist Penny B. Donnenfeld, who brings her golden retriever mix Sandee to her New York City office, has even witnessed animals' ability to rev up elder owners' memories. "I've seen those with memory loss interact and access memories from long ago," she says. "Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging."

Pets benefit, too, particularly when older folks adopt older pets. "These lucky pets go from the pound to paradise. Since most of the adopters are retired, they have lots of time to devote to a previously unwanted pet," says Chicago veterinarian Tony Kremer, who with his wife Meg operates Help Save Pets—Humane Society, which operates adoption centers.

Here are some things caregiver's should consider when purchasing a pet for their senior mom or dad.

  • Right pet for the right owner. But because people age so differently, the decision needs to be made carefully—and not just by grown loving children who think it sounds like a way to provide camaraderie. Because there's no single right pet, ask the following questions to help narrow the field, says Dr. Donnenfeld.
  • Are you set in your ways? If you don't like change, you may not be a good candidate, say the Andersons.
  • Have you had a pet before? Amy Sherman, a licensed therapist and author of "Distress-Free Aging: A Boomer's Guide to Creating a Fulfilled and Purposeful Life," thinks it's best if the elderly person is an experienced owner.
  • Do you have disabilities? Dogs can be wonderful companions who encourage a senior with no major physical limitations to walk and interact with others, Dr. Donnenfeld says. For those who are physically challenged, cats often need less care than dogs, she says. A small dog that's paper-trained or an indoor bird is also sometimes preferable, she says.
  • Do you need a therapy pet? If the person is very infirm or impaired, they may be a candidate for an assistance or therapy dog to help them function or interact.
  • Is the pet the right age? A puppy or kitten may not be the best choice for elderly owners because of the care they require. 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 get sick, Dr. Donnenfeld cautions.
  • Does the pet have a good temperament? Although some older owners may think a Great Pyrenees would be too big to handle, Daffron found one mixed two-year old so mellow that it would have been a good pet for a senior. "Many older people might think they'd do better with a Jack Russell terrier because it's small but they are very, very, very high energy and require more effort and commitment. So much depends on personality," she says.
  • Is the pet healthy? It's important that any pet be examined by a professional. "You don't want to compromise an older person's immune system since some pets carry diseases," says Dr. Hillestad.
  • One pet or two? While multiple pets can keep each other company, that may not be a good idea for an older person, says Dr. Hillestad. "Two puppies may bond with each other rather than with the owner," she says.
  • Are finances an issue? Pets cost money. A small puppy can run more than $810 its first year for food, medical care, toys and grooming while a fish is less expensive--about $235, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If the pet takes ill, dollars snowball. Groups are available to help allay costs.

Susan Daffron, author of "Happy Hound: Develop a Great Relationship with Your Adopted Dog or Puppy" (Logical Expressions, 2006), has taken pets to nursing homes through shelter outreach programs. "I go down halls and people will say, ‘Oh, this looks just like my dog,'" she says. She has also helped elderly folks adopt the right animal. One woman, 86, wanted to be able to walk a dog but didn't want a hyper pet. "She was good at judging her limitations," Daffron says.

Angie Jones became interested in training therapy dogs after bringing her dog Hunter to visit her late father in a retirement home. "It took us half hour to get to my dad's room because everyone stopped us along the way and wanted to pet the dog and tell me about their dog," she says. "Hunter brought my father great joy and opened the door of communication since he was more of a recluse," says Jones who started Central Ohio Good Shepherds, a chapter of Therapy Dogs International Inc.

Where to find the pet. While breeders are a good source, some shelters also provide a pet for less and offer the advantage of rescuing it from euthanasia. Purina Pets for Seniors partners with 200 shelters nationwide to provide seniors pet adoptions at a reduced cost (www.petsforpeople.com). Local services also exist such as Paws/LA in Los Angeles (www.pawsla.org).

Shelter employees often know the pet's personality well and can make a good match, says Daffron. Online pet shopping is also possible, thanks to sites like www.petfinder.com, which pairs owners with 250,000 adoptable pets from 11,000 animal and rescue groups nationwide.

How to provide care long-term for a pet. Because an older owner may take ill or die, it's important that the pet is provided for in a will and a caregiver named, says Dr. Hillestad. Even more basic is that someone knows that an elderly person has a pet. "If the person is rushed to the hospital, it could be left alone if nobody knows," says Allen Anderson.

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30 Comments

Loved the article. Think it would be wonderful if many animals other than cats and dogs could be used for therapy. How about a pony or goat or pot bellied pig. They can all be diapered for their visit. Another fantastic idea would be to have an animal care facility attached to a nursing home where resident's pets could be cared for and make regular visits to the patients room. now that would be a good not for profit to start. Volunteers anyone?
I'm so glad this article came up. I am 54, my Dad is 87. I just found a small terrier/Chihuaua mix who is a rescue. He is the sweetest dog, who has energy, but also wants to cuddle a lot. My dad has gotten to the point where he is not interested in much, and is reclusive. At first I wanted the dog for myself- to calm me down from the stress of 24 hr. caregiving. I also needed to force myself to walk. Zeke has revived both of us, and gives my dad his share of lap-time, although he wants to sleep with me. The adoption agency said that they do not adopt dogs to people over 60, but as I am not, the dog is being adopted to me. It's nearly 3 months now. The day we came home without zeke after taking him for a dental hygiene visit(surgery) we found out just how much he has changed our home, our lives! It was as though the light and life was gone. The atmosphere in the home was dark and empty. We both instantly realized just what a miracle he is for us! And he was saved from the Euph. on the last day of his shelter life. He had been found running the streets, half starved, sick. This precious angel was OUR angel!
I agree with Veronica91 about having an area in a care facility where the animal could be taken care of and make regular visits to the patient's room. I know this won't happen because it would take a lot of time and effort on the part of the people who work at the facility. I know when Mom relocated to the nursing home, the thing she was the most upset about was not being able to take her little dog. Her little dog didn't do well after they were separated. She was so devoted to Mom that no one else would do. The facility she relocated to had tried in the past to have people's pets relocate with them, but had to discontinue this practice. Pets are extremely important to the people who love them. The animal becomes their best friend and companion. I know our animal shelter in our town has a special program for seniors adopting pets. Our pets are gifts from God.