Pet Companionship for the Elderly


Loneliness seems to be the most serious condition an elderly person can face. With all the research being done to find cures for cancer, loneliness ranks the most highest among the elder population who are widowed or left in nursing homes with no one to come visit or show love towards them. Love is the most important health attribute we have and pets are one of nature's best sources of love.

Animals of all types, especially dogs and cats, help not only the elderly overcome the pain of loneliness, but pets show companionship and affection. For anyone who is consistently left alone, pets can also supply a sense of security and protection. Pets can make one laugh and divert the mind away from troubles. Several studies have shown that pets can aid in relaxation, lower one's blood pressure, promote health, and extend one's life. Pets help us unwind. Pets supply a nurturing quality by ways of affectionate attention. Pets relieve stress and anxiety and anyone who bonds with a pet will confirm the value of a pet.

Of the many elderly people in our population, they have discovered that pets satisfy their needs and encourage them to hold on to the world of reality, of care, of human labor and sacrifice, and of intense emotional relationships. With a pet, elderly people see themselves as worthwhile and their sense of self is restored and enhanced because the love they give a pet is being given back to them.

The Role of Pet Ownership

One of the most distressing life events, death of a spouse, occurs with greatest frequency in older populations. Major events, such as spousal loss, are frequently identified as precipitating factors in loneliness, another potential determinant of physician utilization. In light of these notions, it is reasonable to hypothesize that circumstances that promote well-being or alleviate distress or both could reduce the need for physician contact. One such circumstance is pet ownership. Pets have been reported to provide companionship, an aid to health and relaxation, protection, and nonjudgmental acceptance and love.

Observational studies suggest that introducing pets into the lives of terminal cancer patients or the lives of patients in a geriatric ward bring about significant positive social and psychological consequences. Bird placement among British pensioners led to positive psychological effects in comparison with pensioners who received a plant. However, at least one evaluation of a companion animal program failed to show positive gains for those who acquired pets relative to a comparison group; among pet owners, though, affection for pets was positively related to morale.

With regard to naturally occurring pet ownership, one study found no physical benefit and three studies found no psychological benefit of pet ownership among the elderly. This is in contrast to dramatic findings that identified pet ownership as a strong social predictor of 1 year survival in a group of post coronary patients. Also supportive of the value of pets are data from a national probability sample of respondents 65 years or older that showed that pet attachment was inversely related to depression as measured by a symptom scale (Siegel, Judith M.).

In a study done by Northwest University Medial School, the researchers interviewed 393 (one per household) representing 559 individuals aged sixty and over, 122 households had pets. There were seventy-three dogs, sixty-one cats, and five other kinds of animals, indicating more multiple pet ownership than in the questionnaire population. Pet owners were more likely to volunteer to be interviewed than other respondents to the questionnaire.

The most frequent response to the conversational question, "Why do you have a pet?" was, "I have always had a pet." A related response, "I love pets," was also frequent. Companionship and affection was the next most frequent response. The third most common response, selected by about 20 percent of pet owners, was "It gets me out of the house," or "It gives me an opportunity to socialize." Strangely, this response was selected more often by cat owners than dog owners (fifteen compared to seven). One is left to wonder why cat ownership gets the elderly person out of the house, especially in comparison to dog ownership (Smith, David W.E., et, al.).

Pets as Companions

The benefits of pets appear widely accepted and are thought to include companionship, relaxation, improvement in the quality of life, production of a more-home like environment, increased socialization among people, the ability to combat loneliness, increased feelings of security, and provision of a source of unconditional love and concentrated affection.

Animal visits and animal assisted therapy have existed for many years within nursing home and hospital settings based upon the belief that people benefit from interactions with pets. The research supporting these accepted benefits is extremely limited. The effects of pets on lowering blood pressure and other physiological functions is strongly supported by research literature. Additional benefits of pet therapy related to cognitively impaired persons are thought to also include orientation to the present, increased verbal interactions/socialization, and tactile stimulation (Katsinas, Rene').

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (AAPMA), senior citizens can benefit from the physiological, social, and psychological benefits that senior pets provide. Studies suggest elderly pet owners have significantly lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than elderly people with no pet. Because companion animals, young or old, need to be walked, fed and groomed, seniors can take advantage of the increased exercise they will get which results from pet ownership. Walking and caring for a pet helps hearts stay healthy and keeps joins flexible and limber. Along with physiological benefits, companion animals (whether furry, finned or feathered) offer love, and social interaction. These additional benefits of owning a pet will maintain the mental and emotional health of well (APPMA).
Elderly patients in care facilities or rented housing

The physical activities involved in caring for an animal (e.g. walking, grooming) can help residents of long term care release excess energy, maintain muscle strength and joint mobility. Numerous social and psychological benefits of animals have been observed as well. Through performing tasks such as feeding, walking or brushing, an individual gains an increased sense of self-respect, independence and perceived control over his/her environment.

Elderly people who live in rented housing are often prohibited from having companion animals. In order to make a credible case for change in rental policies it is necessary to do research that increases understanding of the potential benefits and nature of relationships between elderly individuals and their pets. The environment of socially isolated elderly women living in their own homes was the focus of a physiology study in which resting blood pressure were explored over a six-month period. Relative to their counterparts without pets, pet owners had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures. In addition, elderly pet owners with few (human) social contacts had blood pressures comparable to those of young women. Participants had cats or dogs and, although no species-related differences were found, attachment to the pet was a very important factor. The notable finding here is that, although increases in blood pressure are a normal part of aging, social support provided by people and or pets can moderate age-related increases (Delta Society).

The help of animals can offer to elderly with communication difficulties another important component in the animal-elderly relationship. Many nursing home residents experience a decline in verbal skills. Animals can help to enhance verbal communication by offering opportunities for patients to vocalize, socialize and reminiscence.

There have been studies where some patients, after months of silence, will talk to an animal. People often perceive social interaction as less threatening in the presence of an animal. This allows patients the opportunity to practice and maintain social skills, thereby increasing connections with others. Animals can also improve relationships between caregivers and patients by providing a more comfortable environment, as well as a mutual interest and conversation topic.

For many elderly, nonverbal communication becomes increasingly important. Because people often maintain nonverbal communication skills after the loss of verbal abilities, the nonverbal acceptance and communication of animals have recognized benefits and importance. One way that residents communicate nonverbally with animals is through sensory stimulation. Physical contact with an animal (holding, stroking, hugging) provides sensory experiences that are difficult to replicate on a consistent basis with people.
With animals, intimacy is also attained instantly. It has been argued that the human-animal bond is more natural than any other type of relationship. Human-animal interactions can help long-term residential patients maximize functional abilities and improve their life altogether (Kogan, Lori I.).

If you want to see an elderly person bounce back from a depressive state and incorporate a rhythm and structure back into their daily lives, give them an animal which will provide a boundless measure of acceptance, adoration, attention and unconditional love. In one nursing home study, the presence of a residential cat resulted in notably increased motivation for social interaction among the elderly residents. Compared with residents who were exposed to stuffed pets, videotapes of pets, or no pets at all, those residents exposed to actual pets showed higher levels of alertness and smiling. Comments from nursing home patients have included: "We all need love and pets give us warm feelings," "A part of home at the hospital," and "This gives us something to talk about besides our troubles."

The same benefits hold true for homebound seniors. Elderly pet owners have been shown to cope better with stressful life events than non-pet owners, and dog owners have enjoyed improvements in their level of self-esteem, versus those without canines.

Additionally, pets often become a "time clock" for elderly persons who have no immediate obligations or scheduled activities. In one study, dog owners walked significantly longer than non-dog owners.
There seems to also be increasing evidence that pets not only improve "quality of life", but can also improve measurable "quantity of life." For example, research studies have reported a marked reduction in risk factors of cardiovascular disease in groups of pet owners, compared to elderly persons with no pet. In another study, pet owners had significantly lower serum triglyceride levels (Likourezos, Antonios, et. al.).

Widowed Persons and Pets as a nuisance

The level of attachment plays a role in therapy for elderly people as well. Boldt and Dellman-Jenkins reported on a longitudinal study in which pets were used to alleviate depression and loneliness in 192 recently bereaved older people. The investigators found that non-pet owners were better able to cope three weeks after the spouse's death; however, six months after the death, significant differences in coping skills between groups were no longer found. The researchers drew conclusions that relationships with pets cannot be considered substitutes for close interpersonal relationships, it cannot be assumed that a pet in the home will ease the loneliness felt after the loss of a human companion and most importantly, a widowed person should not be encouraged to take pets during the early grief period but may benefit from a companion animal only when he or she feels ready for a relationship with a pet.

There are also negative factors associated with animals as companions. A pet could become a nuisance issue, the risk of communicable diseases and the sense of loss and removal of the constant companionship when the animal dies. However, with careful planning, these negative factors can easily be reduced. Such issues as maintaining the cleanliness of the home and scheduling regular veterinary care may be arranged in advance. Most therapy programs also provide bereavement counseling when pets die, and offer advice regarding the introduction of a new animal when appropriate (Likourezos, Antonios, et. al.).
Pet dogs that serve as buffers

Pets may serve to buffer and normalize aging persons' sense of social isolation. In documenting the fact that elderly people are at risk of social isolation, researchers have shown that in New York City, elderly people receive less favorable treatment by physicians. Some elderly people in the United States have no human friends in whom they confide. In one study of the relationships of 92 elderly people and their dogs, the dog was found to be the only friend for a strong majority of the men and women. Recent studies have found provided behavioral data demonstrating that pets stimulate social interactions. Dogs significantly enhanced friendly approaches in studies of people walking their dogs in a London park and of American adults or children who use wheelchairs and are accompanied by a service dog. This socialization would be most valuable for individuals who are feeling isolated, including elderly people, who are often discounted or rejected (Rogers, John, et. al.)

It seems that researchers are somewhat split on what works for the elderly population when it comes to having pets introduced into their lives. Some say pets given to a widowed person would not be a good idea, especially after losing a loved one. Researchers would suggest waiting a period of time before talking about a pet to replace a human companion. Although, with the many studies out about pets as therapy for the elderly population, pets also seem to be welcomed by those who lack human contact. Pets, overall seem to be a therapeutic solution for loneliness. Not only do pets give elderly persons who have no one to love and care for them a reason to go on, but pets also give unconditional love. Pets do not see an old person, they do not see weakness, disability, hurt or pain. The only thing a pet sees is a person wanting to love and be loved.

Even as a young adult, I see pets as therapeutic. Having two cats and three strays in my backyard give me much joy. Without my pets to love and stroke I would be very sad.


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Author: By (Monica Curran)

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