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.

A trip to Africa had always been at the top of Marion’s bucket list—a list that life had prevented her from completing. 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,” recalls Tim Tetzlaff, Director of Conservation and Communications at the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens in Naples, FL. “She told me she could check that item off of her life list after coming here.”

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,” Tetzlaff explains.

The Advantages of Animal Encounters for the Elderly

Interfacing with animals on any level can offer numerous advantages for both caregivers and their elderly loved ones. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), animals can help lower blood pressure and increase feelings of happiness and wellbeing in people of all ages.

Zoo excursions in particular are an excellent way of getting an aging adult out and about, increasing their opportunities for exercise and social interaction, and decreasing their risk of developing symptoms of depression. And, for those living with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, Tetzlaff says he has often witnessed how spending a few hours among the animal exhibits can bring back fond childhood memories.

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.”

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Taking a trip to the local zoo is a wonderful way of getting some animal therapy, without the commitments that come with owning a pet. Even an elder in excellent health can experience a sudden physical or medical setback, which can result in a change in living arrangements that is not pet-friendly. Furthermore, as a senior gets older, there is no way of knowing if they will be able to keep up with the physical aspects of basic pet care, such as walks, cleaning out litter boxes, grooming and vet visits. As an added bonus, the zoo usually offers seniors discounted entry, whereas personally maintaining a pet can be costly, especially for a retired adult living on a fixed income.

Making the Most Out of a Trip to the Zoo

Like most elder care tasks and activities, a zoo excursion with a senior should be carefully planned in order to reduce stress and minimize the likelihood of surprises and setbacks.

Here are some tips for planning 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 must 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 (they’re usually available online). A few days before your trip, sit down with your loved one and ask which exhibits or shows they most want to see. This will help you chart out a preferred course and ensure you hit all the attractions you’re both interested in, without having to deal with the stress of getting lost or wasting time.
  • Be aware of perks and accessible features. Zoos usually offer special discounts for older adults, such as reduced ticket prices or free admission to shows and attractions. When it comes to special exhibits and presentations, most parks provide priority seating for visitors with limited mobility or low vision as well as hearing assistance devices to help those with hearing loss. In addition, many zoos offer manual and even electric wheelchair rentals.
  • Pack accordingly. Depending on your loved one’s health and abilities, be sure to bring along all the supplies you may need during an outing. This includes plenty of water, a snack, any necessary medications, and possibly incontinence supplies and an extra change of clothing. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen and don a hat and some sunglasses, too.
  • Don’t hesitate 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 rope barriers and hand out longer lettuce leaves to elders who are in wheel chairs or have trouble reaching the animals. 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 your mundane routines at home. If there isn’t a zoological park in your area, consider visiting a local farm or animal rescue organization. Your Area Agency on Aging, a local hospital or a nursing home may be able to provide you with information about animal therapy resources as well.

*Names have been changed.