The value of relationships has long been established as the key to better physical and mental health. When we think of these relationships we normally think of “human” relationships. However, new research shows as many pet owners would expect, that dogs and other pet relationships can be beneficial for their human friends.
Multiple studies have shown the benefits of dogs for their human companions. The latest study comes from the American Heart Association. Three million participants from 1950 through March of 2019 were studied. Dog owners were shown to have a 24% risk reduction of death than their non-dog owners. Those with heart issues had even a greater benefit according to the study.
Previous research showed that owning a dog provided better well-being and comfort to the human owner. The combined physical and emotional benefits provide humans with many health advantages when they have a dog in their life. No matter the age, the rewards of having and caring for a pet are numerous physically and emotionally.
Pet’s Provide Purpose for Older Adults
“Pets give purpose, especially to seniors. They fill their lives with activity whether it is going to the pet store, the vet’s office, the groomer, or just a walk around the block. The exercise a pet provides its human owner brings positive health rewards. The rewards are more than physical as the dog provides the owner with companionship. The emotional support is critical as we get older. It also gives the owner another way to engage with other people as they will have stories to share about their pet,” said Dr. Michelle Radwanski, a well-known veterinarian in the Chicago area.
Michelle Radwanski D.V.M. with her three dogs, from left, Sunshine, Roxy and Buddy
Radwanski, who runs Argonne Animal Hospital in Lemont, Illinois, says the love a person receives from a dog or other pet promotes physical and mental well-being for the owner. A leading neuropsychologist agrees.
Health Benefits of Pets
“It has been well-established that pets have a therapeutic and often calming impact on people in general. However, there is also evidence that, for the elderly, owning and interacting with pets can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase social interaction, and increase physical activity,” said Dr. Thomas Schweinberg, staff neuropsychologist for the Lindner Center of HOPE in Mason, Ohio just outside Cincinnati.
Dr. Radwanski sees these benefits as she interacts with pet owners and their animals in her practice.
“There is a 90-year-old man that routinely brings in his dog to my clinic. He explains how he shares his breakfast every morning with Vito (the dog). He tells me how they are both a little stiff but after their walks, they both feel much better. After they leave, I speak with his daughter to make sure he stays on track with the pet’s medication. We work as a team because Vito gives this man purpose, love and a companion that is there all the time for him,” she explained.
Radwanski says dogs are considered well suited for this role as they require more engagement than many other pets. The key is to have the right dog depending on your stage in life. No matter if you are looking for yourself or an older family member, matching the person with the pet is essential.
“The pet needs to fit in and match the family or individual,” she explained.
Experts in long-term care often note the benefits of pet ownership.
“Many of my clients talk about their dogs or cats. They are often as important as the rest of the family although they have different roles. As a person gets older it is the dog or cat becomes the constant companion. When I process claims for Long-Term Care Insurance it is not unusual for the person, or their family, asking about the role of the pet in caregiving,” said Matt McCann, a nationally known expert on long-term care planning.
Three 50+ Groups
There are three generally accepted groups of people ages 50+ and the type of pet will depend on their age and level of independence.
- Empty Nesters – These are people in their 50s or early 60s whose kids have left the home (in college or on their own) and are still enjoying good active health. This group tends to travel and be more active than older groups. A pet that reflects their active lifestyle and self-sufficiency is good for their physical health. However, since they find themselves in a household with their children but companionship is a major consideration for their overall mental well-being.
- Interdependence Group – These are people generally ages 65ish to 75ish. This group is becoming more reliant on others. Usually, they are still living at home fairly independently. This group might start needing some help with everyday living activities as they continue to age and start slowing down. The type of dog should reflect this lifestyle and provide companionship but help encourages physical activity within their physical limits.
- Dependency Group – These are people ages 75+ and are receiving some help these activities-of-daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IDALs). Companionship is a key part of pet ownership but their ability to take care of a pet can be very limited without supervision or someone’s help. While a dog or another pet can be very important the animal should match their level of ability.
IDAL and ADL Definitions
Instrumental activities of daily living (IDALs)
- Cleaning and maintaining the house.
- Managing money.
- Moving within the community.
- Preparing meals.
- Shopping for groceries and necessities.
- Taking prescribed medications.
Activities of Daily Living:
Rescue Dogs a Great Choice
Dr. Radwanski suggests adopting rescue dogs. For those looking for dogs, a mature dog may best fit for those who are older. These animals are already trained and have less energy than a younger dog which might be more appropriate for an empty nester.
“You should never change your home specifically for your pet. It is best to adopt the right animal for the home and the ability to take care of and engage with the animal. Most of the time an adult or senior pet is the right fit for those who are older. Most health and behavioral issues have already been exposed and routine care established. You will know the pet and their personality and be able to match the right pet for the potential owner, Radwanski said.
Dogs Benefit Care Plan in Long-Term Care Facilities
Even in a long-term care facility pets can be an important element of caregiving. According to Therapy Dogs of Vermont, therapy dogs help those in assisted living or nursing homes come alive.
As Dr. Schweinberg notes, it is well established that dogs have a very calming and therapeutic effect. This is important for both the residents of a care facility as well as the staff. It assists the resident cope with the emotional issues related to aging.
Perhaps the biggest overlooked aspect of having these four-legged friends is that they provide physical contact with another living creature. This is often missing in an older person’s life. This loneliness often increases as a person gets older. It also provides pleasant memories of past pets which also promotes well-being.