Anyone who’s ever had a pet knows the love and companionship they provide. For seniors who have a hard time going out to visit family and friends, the impact is even more profound.
Most don’t need a research study to know that pets are good for them, but the evidence is certainly piling up. Pets can literally add years to your life.
For this reason, and many more, pets have an important role to play at senior living communities and in seniors’ lives.
Pets with a Purpose
Those who raised families and juggled busy careers may struggle to find purpose in their retired years. Having a pet can create a sense of responsibility and mission. Seniors can’t sleep too late because they need to get up and feed Fido or FiFi.
Along with giving life structure and routine, pets are always there to offer a wagging tail or a calming purr. They are dependable, loyal and judgement-free. This kind of emotional support can encourage seniors to invest in life and make good decisions. Just ask the 25 million baby boomers who own pets — they feel loved and needed.
Something to Bark About
The 165 million dogs and cats in America get a lot from us, but we may get even more in return. For seniors with disabilities, dogs can be even more than companion pets. Therapy dogs can help seniors walk, open doors, get dressed, prevent falls, call 911, retrieve objects, bark for help and detect seizures.
Spending just 15 minutes with an animal can create powerful chemical reactions in the brain. The fight-or-flight hormone cortisol decreases and the feel-good hormone serotonin kicks in. This causes a reduction in blood pressure, heart rate and stress level that can eventually lead to lower cholesterol, heart disease, stroke and depression risks.
One study following 4,000 cat owners over 10 years determined that owning a cat can dramatically reduce a person’s risk of dying of heart disease.
For those who live alone, having a pet reduces their risk of dying by a third. Furry friends also improve the way seniors process stress, bounce back after a difficult event and recover from a heart attack.
In addition to boosting hearts and self-esteem, being around animals increases naturally occurring antibodies that protect against invading germs. Perhaps that’s why people with pets report fewer doctor visits.
Nonverbal, animal communication can also break through the boundaries of language and disability — especially among patients with dementia. Among the elderly, pet therapy has been shown to improve appetite, social interactions and brain stimulation.
Getting Out and About
From daily feedings and brushings to dog walks and cleaning up their messes, no matter your age, looking after a pet can be quite a workout.
Walking with dogs also improves senior speed and distance. That’s good news, because dog walking has been associated with lower body mass index, fewer daily limitations, fewer doctor’s visits and quicker recoveries.
In addition to the physical activity, pets encourage seniors to get out and about — to the vet, the groomer and all around their senior living community.
Pets are great ice breakers. They help seniors make friends with neighbors and give them something to talk about with their family, friends, visitors and caretakers.
And best of all, a dog or cat doesn’t care if you’ve gone gray or don’t walk as fast as you used to. For many seniors, this unconditional love gives them something to focus on other than their health problems.
Cuddles and Communication
Besides the numerous health and social benefits, pets are mentally stimulating. After all, they are content to be wherever you are — walking, eating or just cuddling on the couch.
With more settled, slower-paced lives, seniors have lots of time to devote to their pets. That means more smiles, hugs and calming endorphins like oxytocin and dopamine.
This unwavering companionship can be welcome relief for seniors who may be living alone for the first time in years. For those who have lost their spouse or have children living far away, a pet can provide much-needed snuggles and companionship.
Picking the Best Pet
Pets live in the moment. This attitude can be an important reminder for seniors who may fear what tomorrow will bring. It also gives seniors the opportunity to focus on something other than loss and aging.
Since many seniors have mobility issues, cats, small birds and small dogs make great, low-maintenance pets. Seniors should avoid high-energy puppies and kittens, and animals who may have decades-long lifespans.
Generally, it’s best to get an adult pet, but not one that’s so senior they require lots of medical care. Pets for the Elderly partners with shelters across the country to provide seniors with pets at a reduced cost.
Seniors Know Best
When it comes to adopting a pet, your beloved senior should pick the perfect pet for them. The ideal choice would be calm, kind, laidback and excited to bond. For seniors who are blind or infirm, a service pet may be ideal.
If your mom or dad gets a pet, it’s important that they have a succession plan in place and name a caregiver in their will. It’s also vital that they can afford the costs associated with a pet, which can run anywhere from $500 and $1,000 a year. For many seniors though, the benefits of having a pet more than outweigh the costs.
Paradise for Pets
Brookdale is home to many pet-friendly communities. Some resident pets even become self-appointed community mascots — going door-to-door and paying social calls to neighboring seniors. With so many opportunities for socialization, senior living communities are perfect places for pets to thrive. In many communities, licensed therapy pets even stop by for healing guest appearances.
When looking for a community for your senior and their beloved Barkley or Ms. Whiskers, find out if the community has size, weight and breed restrictions. Do they offer pet services? Is there a standard pet policy? Or are animals admitted on a case-by-case basis?
In many cases, pets are a welcome addition to the Brookdale family. Seniors get much-needed companionship, and it’s a pretty great deal for the animals too. Drop by a Brookdale near you and see how your furry friend will fit right in.
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