Pets alleviate depression, loneliness, and social isolation in seniors while encouraging more physical activity
If seniors were asked to list the most important problems that they face, loneliness and social isolation would probably be at the top. Some older adults, however, are overcoming these challenges by taking care of pets.
Studies have shown that pets—whether a dog, cat, parakeet or even a horse—are therapeutic and can improve the overall well-being of the elderly.
Caring for a furry or non-furry friend keeps seniors active and gives them purpose, particularly those without family or whose family members live a distance away.
Pet ownership for the elderly is not only encouraged in the United States but also in Europe. In fact, the European Union plans to launch a campaign in 2020 to promote the benefits pets have on the elderly. In connection with the campaign, the International Federation for Animal Health Europe has set up a Facebook page where seniors can post videos about their pets and get information on how to care for them.
Long-Term Care Residents Enjoy Pets, Too
Pets not only help seniors living in their own homes, but also those who live in long-term health care facilities that have animal-assisted therapy (AAT) or pet visitation programs. According to an article published in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, therapy dogs help nursing home residents to alleviate their depression, loneliness, and fear, among other things. What’s more, AAT programs help the elderly in nursing homes engage in more physical activity, whether it’s stroking or petting the dog which requires using hands and arms, and stretching and turning the body.
Benefits of Pet Ownership
Not all seniors can take care of a pet, but those who can say that having a pet has improved their lives. This is supported by scientific studies and anecdotal evidence from seniors who either own pets or participate in AAT.
According to an article in Annals of Long-Term Care, researchers have found that pet ownership or AAT programs can:
- Decrease the risks of heart attack
- Improve psychological health
- Reduce feelings of agitation, aggression, and depression
- Reduce anxiety
- Speed up the healing process of patients in hospital settings
- Decrease blood pressure
- Improve a senior’s ability to carry out daily activities
- Improve mobility
Pets also has a positive influence on the mental health of elderly pet owners. Fourteen older adults who were 65 years old were interviewed about the significance of pet ownership and the impact it has on their mental health. The Australian researchers who conducted the 2019 survey found four benefits that pets provide to seniors:
- Comfort and safety
- Social participation
- Purposeful routine and structure
- A meaningful role
Regardless of the type of animal cared for—even if it’s a guinea pig—pets can improve an older adult’s outlook and quality of life, according to the article.
Pets Give Older Adults a Feeling of Belonging
Older adults also say that pets help to stave off loneliness and increase social interaction. A survey published in 2013 in the Health & Place journal supports this premise. A random sampling of 844 adults who were 50 years old and owned dogs said they felt a “sense of community” as they walk their dogs because they often talk to their neighbors during the walk.
What’s more, the chances of walking 150 minutes a week were higher for seniors who frequently walked their dogs than for people who did not own dogs. The survey concluded that having a sense of community and an increase in physical activity helps to support healthy aging.
Older Adults Still Need Human Support
While animals may give the elderly a greater sense of well-being, older adults still need humans for companionship.
Seniors with chronic health conditions or those who have mobility problems may find it difficult to take care of themselves, let alone take care of a pet. Some older adults are finding that caregivers provide the human support they need as they struggle with their health and other life issues.
For the most part, family members or close friends may start out as caregivers. But the daily responsibility of caring for an elderly loved one can cause burnout for the unpaid caregivers. Family members will not bear the burden of taking care of their loved one when professional in-home caregivers are hired to help. In-home caregivers not only help older adults with personal care, such as bathing, dressing, and grooming, but they also provide companionship.
FCP Live-In caregivers, for instance, provide companionship by accompanying clients to medical appointments and transporting them to recreational or social activities. More importantly, FCP Live-In caregivers provide emotional support and engage in meaningful conversations with their clients.
So, it all adds up to older adults benefiting from companionship provided by both humans and animals.
The article published in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services noted an important reason why the elderly enjoy dogs: A dog is non-judgmental and a person’s age or physical ability does not matter to the animal.