Pets Can Benefit Older Adults in Many Ways - Including Delaying Cognitive Decline

For empty nesters and senior citizens, having a pet like a dog or a cat can benefit their physical and mental health. Even more, evidence suggests that older persons with pets may experience slower cognitive impairment over five years or longer.

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Pets Can Benefit Older Adults in Many Ways - Including Delaying Cognitive Decline
4 Min Read October 18th, 2022 Updated:November 8th, 2023


In a world that can often feel chaotic and overwhelming, a pet's unconditional love and companionship can serve as a soothing balm for the soul. As any pet owner can tell you, there are many benefits to owning pets. Having a furry, feathered, or scaly creature like common pleco in your life really helps, especially with your mental health. This is especially true for empty nesters and older adults.

With their wagging tails and soulful gazes, these furry friends possess the remarkable ability to lower stress levels, reduce blood pressure, and even boost memory and cognitive performance. Their presence in our lives can catalyze a healthier, happier, and more engaged mental state.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have linked pet ownership to better brain health. The research suggests that an older adult who has owned a pet for five or more years has delayed aging in the brain.

Dr. Tiffany Braley of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who authored the study, says the human-animal bond may have health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and stress. But there seem to be cognitive benefits as well.

Our results suggest pet ownership may also be protective against cognitive decline.

If you have an older parent or family member, or perhaps yourself, thinking about a pet, these are five things to consider.

  • Pets Help Reduce Loneliness

One of the most pressing issues senior people face is loneliness. They're more likely to live alone, and they may not see their family as often as they'd like as they're so busy. That adds up to a lot of time spent alone, and that is going to take a toll on mental health. 

Owning a pet can really help alleviate loneliness. Of course, having a pet isn't the same as having human companionship. Still, pets help with the loneliness that often comes with senior living. Simply having another living creature in the house will help a lot. Talking to, playing with, or simply relaxing with a pet will help combat this problem. 

  • Adds Structure to Day-to-Day Living

Anyone who's ever had a pet knows that routine is crucial. You'll need to ensure you're feeding the pet, playing with them, walking them, and so on every day. That pet is counting on you to stick to that schedule. 

Be sure to consider whether you or your older family member is up to the job. However, having a routine is something that can really help older adults. As you get older, you'll find that you often have much more free time than you're used to. When you don't have as many responsibilities, it can affect your health. Many find they can't get good quality sleep or find it hard to maintain their mental health. When you have a pet, you'll have a routine that benefits both physical and mental health. 

  • Get Outside with Your Pet

Staying active and moving is crucial to one's physical and mental health, especially when you get older. If you're looking for a good way to stay active, getting a pet is an ideal way to do so. Dogs are the best for this; of course, you need to walk them daily. 

Getting outside will do wonders for your health, but you don't need to be walking a dog to get active. Grooming and playing with a pet will help your mental health too, and they will help with dexterity. 

  • A Sense of Purpose

Understand that as a person ages, their role in the world changes, making it difficult for many people to cope with the transition of life. Children have grown up and moved out, sometimes a spouse has passed, and now retirement. You are wondering what to do each day. That's something that a pet can really help with. 

Older adults have a sense of purpose every day when they own pets. As pointed out above, you'll have a routine, as that pet depends on you. Knowing you're responsible for caring for and keeping that pet safe makes every day exciting and fulfilling. 

  • You Don't Have to Own a Pet to Get The Benefits

You may have seen all these benefits and thought it would be great to own a pet, but you don't believe that you could do it. There may be several reasons you couldn't own a pet, such as not having the space for one or not being able to dedicate yourself to their care full time. You should think long and hard before getting any pet, and sometimes you'll decide you can't have one yourself. 

That doesn't mean that you can't benefit from pets at all. There are lots of ways you can interact with animals and improve your mental and physical health. For example, volunteering at an animal shelter will help give you routine and company, as well as allowing you to interact with lots of different animals regularly. 

These are just a few reasons you or your older family should consider getting a pet. Even if your loved one, or yourself, has age or health problems, a pet can be beneficial physically and mentally. For many people, a pet can provide a better quality of life.


Moving with a Pet


If you or a loved one is downsizing, be sure the new home will be "pet freindly." Moving with a pet can sometimes be challenging. 


Moving can be a stressful experience for anyone. Still, it can be particularly challenging for older adults who are moving with their beloved pets. For older adults, pets are often more than just companions; they are an integral part of their daily lives and provide much-needed emotional support and physical activity. Moving with a pet can be emotionally difficult, as older adults may feel guilty or uncertain about how the move will affect their pet's health and well-being. However, there are several steps older adults can take to make the transition easier for themselves and their furry companions.


One of the most important things older adults can do is to plan their move well in advance. Adult families should help them with this process. Be sure to find a new home that is pet-friendly and in a safe and comfortable location for both the older adult and their pet. It's also essential to make sure that the new home meets the pet's specific needs, such as access to outdoor space or proximity to veterinary care. 


The Ultimate Guide To Moving Long Distance With Pets


Additionally, older adults should ensure that their pet's medical records and identification tags are up-to-date and that they have enough medication and food to last during the move. By taking these steps, older adults can ensure that their move goes smoothly and that their pet remains healthy and happy throughout the transition.


If your loved one lives in a long-term care facility, there may be opportunities for pets. Some facilities have pets in the building. Fish tanks and bird cages are available for interaction. Some long-term care facilities may allow small pets, be sure you ask.

Keep in mind that dogs and cats may be associated with fall risk, and fall injuries related to pets are highest for those aged 75 years and older. While pet ownership is beneficial on many levels, Dr. Braley says additional research is required to further analyze the potential explanations for these associations. 

According to Braley, since stress can impair cognitive performance, the possible stress-relieving benefits of pet ownership may offer a convincing explanation for their study's results.

A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health. That said, more research is needed to confirm our results and identify underlying mechanisms for this association.

Pets offer love and affection, as well improving overall health. If you think you could give a pet a home, it'll be highly beneficial to you.

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Editor's Note

While pets can be beneficial as you get older, they are not a solution to future long-term health care needs. Your pet is dependent on you, and you probably don't want to be dependent on your family as you get older.

The routine everyday activities of daily living that you take for granted now may not be as routine when you are older. As we age, we experience chronic illnesses, mobility problems, dementia, and frailty. These problems often lead us to need long-term health care. The costs are rising rapidly and can adversely impact your income and assets.

You probably want to safeguard your 401(k) and other savings, but the problem of long-term care is more than just a financial issue. The consequences of long-term care place emotional strain and burden on your family.

Remember, health insurance - including Medicare (and supplements) pays for a small amount of skilled care services. This means you will be responsible for your long-term care unless you have little or no income and assets. In that case, Medicaid would be available. 

The solution is Long-Term Care Insurance. You might say that LTC Insurance is expensive. It can be, but premiums vary over 100% between insurance companies. Premiums are usually considered very affordable if you are in good health and under age 65. Even those over age 65 can find affordable options, but the younger and healthier you are, the better deals you will find.

When you have an LTC Insurance policy in place, you are in control. You can choose quality care services in your desired setting, including in-home care. Your family doesn't have to be burdened with becoming your caregiver. Everyone is a winner. Plus, your legacy will remain in place.

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