Pets and the Elderly: The Warm and Fuzzy Benefits

A companion animal can make life more interesting and cheerful for the elderly. Take a look at the many benefits furry friends bring to your loved ones.

You try to provide your loved ones with everything they need to be healthy and happy—a safe environment, nutritious food, plenty of your attention, and, of course, top-notch care. But have you also thought about a pet? A companion animal can enrich the lives of the elderly on many levels, having a profound physical and mental impact. Here’s a look at all the good things a pet can bring to an elderly person’s life:

Pets give days a sense of structure. Many seniors, after retiring or losing their partner, suffer from a sense that their lives lack purpose. A pet can become a valuable focal point, according to research from the National Institutes of Health. Attending to a pet’s needs for regular mealtimes (and, in the case of dogs, walks) creates a daily schedule, and gives seniors the feeling that they are still accountable to another living being. This responsibility can, in turn, make life feel that it has greater meaning.

Animals can encourage exercise. Research published in the October 2017 issue of The Gerontologist found that senior pet owners had a lower body mass index, visited the doctor less often, and spent less time in sedentary state. Obviously, dog owners must walk their dogs several times daily, getting themselves some exercise in the process. (In fact, seniors who own a dog spend 22 more minutes a day, on average, staying active, and take an additional 2,760 steps daily). Other pets, though, also seem to encourage physical activity.

An animal can lessen loneliness. Many elderly people lose their social contacts as they age. Besides providing valuable companionship, pets can be a way of meeting other people—think of the conversations dog owners have with each other in parks or on the street during walks, for instance. In a group living situation, a pet can spark a conversation and interactions among residents.

Dementia can be less devastating. Among nursing home patients who have Alzheimer’s and dementia, pets have been shown to have profound benefits. Research has found these companion animals boost seniors’ nutritional well-being and ease their depression and agitation.

An animal buddy promotes bravery. Researched published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that pet owners have higher self-esteem and tend to be less fearful than their non-pet-owning counterparts.

Pets can be powerful buffers against stress. According to findings published in Scientific American, the mere act of petting a cat or dog causes our bodies to release oxytocin, a “feel-good” hormone that promotes overall wellbeing and reduces stress. Furthermore, the American Heart Association says that pet owners to have both lower overall blood pressure and less dramatic rises in heart rate and blood pressure in response to stress. They also recover faster from stressful events.

Of course, a pet isn’t for everyone. If you do decide your loved one would benefit from a pet, make sure that the animal’s size, strength, energy level, and temperament is well-matched to their needs. A giant dog straining at the leash, for instance, can make walks more exhausting than beneficial, while an unfriendly cat can be stressful to live with. You’ll also want to make sure that your loved one or their caregiver keeps the pet’s toys and other paraphernalia well organized—more than 86,000 people visit the E.R. annually because they’ve fallen over a pet or some piece of equipment associated with the animal. When done the right way, have a pet can provide seniors with one final benefit, the most important one of all: unconditional love.

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