Many people grow up with pets. Be it a dog, cat, hamster or fish, that provide a family with loving companionship and loyalty that only a pet can offer. This doesn’t go away as we age. A dog or cat can have a very positive impact on the lifestyle of an elderly family member and can become a key part in long-term care.
“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. Schweinberg says these benefits are particularly helpful to the elderly, who often begin to limit their activities and increasingly withdraw from the interpersonal world around them. Additionally, interacting with pets provides the elderly with the opportunity to provide nurturing attention to another being.
“Very often, older patients have long not been able to offer nurturance to others, and instead have become merely the recipients of nurturing attention and treatment. Being able to provide such nurturance gives them a much-needed sense of purpose, as well as feeling the appreciation and love that their pets have for them" he explained.
He says just being able to pet a dog and see its tail wag with delight and appreciation can provide such an indescribable sense of satisfaction and joy for a person in a long-term care situation, be at in their own home, assisted living or a nursing home. These people are the ones who usually have difficulty finding joy in their everyday lives can find joy and purpose by taking care of a pet.
Dr. Michelle Radwanski, a well-known veterinarian at Argonne Animal Hospital in Lemont, Illinois (www.argonneanimalhospital.com) sees firsthand the benefits of pets in her 18 years of practice.
Dr. Radwanski says she became a veterinarian because of the influence her family dog had on her as she grew up. A Shih Tzu named Dusty lived to the age of 17 and was a true companion.
“She showed me unconditional love when other did not,” she explains. “She was my best friend every single day and was always by my side. I was changed by this little five-pound dog and these same feelings are what I see when seniors decide to care for a pet.”
Dr. Radwanski sees how pets bring joy back to their lives. They get to experience unconditional love and have a friend by them each day.
“Animals improve our mood, improve our health and make us smile more,” she said.
According to the National Institute on Aging, several research studies have shown a strong correlation between social interaction and health and well-being among older adults. Social isolation may have significant adverse effects for older adults. A dog or cat can help in this area. Dr. Radwanski says there is no need for anyone, especially a person 50+, to feel this way.
“I believe there is a pet for everyone. Every pet has a place in a family, but it has to be a right fit,” she said.
Dr. Radwanski encourages a family to consider the person’s ability to take care of the pet and their needs and limitations. She says older people with limitations can have difficulty providing the right care for a pet.
“For those with physical limitations, consider adopting an adult or senior cat that can be content just sitting on their lap for a majority of the day,” she explains.
Exercising the pet can be as easy as using a laser pen. The cat can be stimulated and get that activity they need without major effort from the older person. If the elder family member can walk the process of walking a dog can be good for both the pet and the person. Dr. Radwanski suggests adopting an older dog which won’t pull the person as they walk.
Just as your elder family member’s health changes, so does the pet’s health change. Radwanski says the animal’s health needs also need to be part of the equation when placing a pet with your older family member. A local veterinarian or shelter can help you match your family member with a new animal friend.
Many studies have shown that people who live with animals have lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides and lower cholesterol than those living without. Depression is also lessened. This can be a good match for both the human and the animal.
“I have seen how pets have changed people’s lives. They give you a reason to live for every day. The allow you to keep a routine. They make you smile. They give you stories. They give you someone to care for,” Dr. Radwanski said.
Many assisted living facilities allow pets to live with the residents. Nursing homes allow visits for pets which cheer the residents. If a person is living at home while receiving extended care services that dog or cat really becomes part of the caregiving team.
If you have an older family member who is transitioning to long-term care consider a pet to be part of the caregiving team, both the pet and the family member will be better for it.