Pets Can Improve Quality of Life for Seniors

By J. Jody Kelly – April 1, 2014

Concerned about your elderly relatives’ loneliness, high blood pressure, boredom, grief, high cholesterol, depression, social isolation, lack of purpose in life, dementia, anxiety, sedentary lifestyle, or negativity? One of the best ways you can help your elders improve these and other aspects of their lives is to put them into regular contact with animals. Connecting your senior citizens with animals can also better your own life by giving you something positive to share with them.

Unless your elders are among the 35 percent who don’t like cats or the 12 percent who don’t like dogs, according to a poll conducted by the American Humane Association, you can develop four strategies for increasing their contact with animals to enhance the quality of their lives. The first two strategies apply to elders still living in their own home or in a retirement community that permits pets. The other two relate to elders who live in an apartment, an assisted living facility, or a nursing home that doesn’t permit pets.

The first strategy, of course, is to encourage Mom to get a pet if she is able to take care of it. A small dog, a cat, a bird, or a tank of fish can provide significant health benefits. Even if you have to help with the veterinarian visits or take care of the pet while Mom travels, you’ll know that her daily life will contain the enjoyment a pet can provide. If you don’t have a pet of your own, you can get your “fix” by frequently visiting Mom and her pet. Sharing the care of a pet can cement a genuine intergenerational connection.

The second strategy is to bring your own pet along, if you have one, when you visit your older relatives. Most dogs and many cats travel reasonably well. When you arrive at Dad’s with Fido in tow, you’re more likely to enjoy a pleasant conversation and maybe even a walk, and Dad is less likely to launch into a recital of his aches and pains. When Dad visits your house, your pet can serve as the welcoming committee, especially if there are no grandchildren for Dad to greet. Fido will provide endless topics of conversation and will give Dad something pleasant and beneficial to anticipate.

The third strategy is best used before Grandma leaves her own home and moves into a facility, but you might be able to arrange it retroactively. Find out if there’s a therapy dog or cat that lives at the facility. If there isn’t, encourage the administrators to get one. Various local therapy organizations have cats and dogs who might be able to help. If there’s already a resident therapy animal, encourage Grandma to spend time with the animal and be sure to take her to visit the animal whenever you go see her.

The final strategy might work when a resident therapy animal isn’t possible: Ask the administrators for regular visits from volunteers who take courses and have their pets certified for hospital and assisted living visits. Grandpa may find that the highlight of his week is the day the therapy dog comes for a visit. Arrange to go see him on one of these visits so you can participate in the fun as well.

Is regular contact with animals so beneficial to older people that you should consider making it a priority? Yes. Studies show that companion animals provide many health benefits for older people.

Many families wouldn’t dream of bringing up their children without providing the joys of animal companions. More and more, families are realizing that they should make an effort to accord the same joys and health benefits for their oldest friends and relatives as well. It’s a win-win situation.

If you are interested in arranging for pet therapy services, volunteering, or training your dog to participate, the following organizations are available in the Austin area. In addition to working with the elderly, many of these organizations provide therapy for those on the autism spectrum, wounded soldiers, children with reading disorders, and a wide variety of other groups.

Austin Dog AllianceDivine Canines, PAWS of Austin, Therapy Pet Pals of Texas



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