Taking care of a pet takes time, energy and effort. This may make pets seem like a poor choice for seniors. But, that’s not the case. Instead, seniors with pets tend to be healthier and often fare better emotionally as well.
Pets are particularly relevant for seniors who are often isolated, such as those that live alone.
But, even if the senior lives with you, a pet can be worth considering. The benefits are considerable and many pets are easy to care for.
In this post, we take a look at some of the key benefits pets offer for seniors. Many of these apply to other age groups as well.
Why Pets Matter
One of the main reasons for having a pet is companionship. Loneliness and isolation are serious issues for seniors, especially those with limited mobility.
Many seniors also live alone. Even if they are active socially, coming home to an empty house often isn’t enjoyable. Having a pet is a powerful way around this.
Pets also become someone to talk to. Most of us end up talking out loud to our pets, often without thinking about it. It isn’t quite the same as having a conversation with another person, but the process is still beneficial.
Another reason is the sense of purpose.
Many people find themselves struggling with purpose as they age. They will often have fewer responsibilities and commitments. This can mean days feel structureless and may have less meaning.
With a pet, the senior has another living thing to care for. This can sometimes bring back some of the positive emotions from raising children as well and also create more meaning.
This also happens because pets create routines. This could include having to take the dog for a walk regularly or needing to change out the cat’s litter box. Whatever the pet, little chores help create purpose and most aren’t difficult for seniors to manage.
You can also choose the specific pet based on what the senior can physically handle.
For example, cats often require less work than dogs and will take care of themselves to some degree. Small pets like birds or a hamster require less effort again and still offer many advantages.
Benefits of Pets for Seniors (The Research)
From a logical perspective, pets being beneficial does make sense. It’s easy to see how they could help, especially if the pet is well-matched to the senior.
The advantages aren’t just theoretical either. Instead, research has consistently shown that pets offer physical, mental and emotional benefits.
One study found that dog ownership and pet bonding was positively associated with health outcomes and walking behavior in older adults (1).
Seniors that were more closely bonded with their pet tended to walk their dogs more often and experienced better health outcomes as a result.
The study also highlighted the social benefits of dog walking.
Seniors with dogs also spend an average of 22 minutes extra walking each day (2) an outcome that has many positive health implications. Indeed, the process can help decrease weight and lead to fewer doctor’s visits (3).
Walking the dog is often considered a responsibility, rather than exercise. As a result, one study found that people who walked their dogs tended to do so regardless of the weather conditions. In contrast, people without dogs will often not exercise when the weather is poor (4). This suggests that dog walking is a powerful way to promote physical exercise.
A fairly recent summary of research highlighted many health benefits associated with animal companionship and pet ownership (5). These included the following advantages:
Social capital. People tend to spend more time with others when out walking their dogs, often forming new relationships and talking to others when they are walking.
Physical health. Having a pet can promote physical health. This impact isn’t limited to exercise and dogs either. Instead, pets can promote lower blood pressure and cholesterol, along with a slower deterioration in the ability for people to care for themselves. On average, people with pets tend to visit the doctor less often and report better health overall. Many of these impacts may be associated with a decrease in stress and tension, along with the way that pets can provide purpose and structure.
Patients with Dementia. For people with dementia, pets can help to decrease behavioral symptoms and improve social behavior. In some cases, substitutes for pets are used, depending on the stage of stage of dementia. Even so, many of the studies that observed benefits did look at actual pets.
Emotional Health. Pet ownership has been linked to improvements in emotional health, including a decreased sense of loneliness, improved self-esteem, and improvements in levels of depression.
Grief. Pets may also help support seniors through grief. A strong attachment to a pet can help to mitigate associated depression and decrease health declines.
A different study indicated that human and animal interaction may help reduce psychological distress. However, research in this field is still early and the full extent of the effects isn’t known, nor is how to optimize this pattern (6).
Other studies also confirm health benefits, including improvements in blood pressure, levels of anxiety, mental health, physical health and social behavior (7).
There are many other studies out there as well and research into this field is ongoing. We’re likely to learn more about the mechanisms behind these benefits as the research is conducted – along with which pets are best suited for different people and situations.
But, even now, it’s abundantly clear that pets are effective at promoting health and can be a powerful choice for seniors.
Finding the Best Pet for a Senior
To take advantage of the benefits of pets for seniors, you need to consider which type of pet is the best choice for the senior.
This is something I’ll cover in the next post.
If owning a pet isn’t viable, there are still alternatives.
For example, some nursing homes and senior living communities will bring animals in from time-to-time for pet therapy sessions. Other places may have community pets, which gives everyone the chance to have some animal contact on a regular basis. Some senior centers may also offer events that bring seniors into contact with pets.
Another option would be finding a local friend or contact who has a pet. It may be possible to arrange for the senior to spend time with them periodically. This isn’t as good as actually owning a pet but there would still be some advantages.
Some shelters also allow people to bring pets home temporarily – based on the idea that one-on-one time can be good for the pet and increase the odds of adoption. There may be other options in your local area as well.