Pets for Seniors: Benefits vs. Difficulties

The grandmother with a cat on a sofaHow does having or not having a pet fit into keeping home an option for your elderly loved one? Is pet ownership healthy or harmful? Numerous studies have been conducted, but the result statistics, either positive or negative, are difficult to prove.
“I’m not a Grinch, but the science is not as clear as most people think,” said Dr. Harold Herzog, professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. “There is little debate about the safety and success of pet programs that bring animals into nursing homes or hospitals for patients to play with and pet, but individual pet ownership may be a different proposition, and it depends a great deal on the strengths and weaknesses of the owner.”
10 Possible Benefits:
Ten possible pet ownership benefits that have been studied may seem obviously positive for the elderly:

  1. Comfort and companionship that can lessen loneliness and depression
  2. Increased social interaction: trips to the vet and pet store, walks where other pet owners gather, opportunities for withdrawn seniors to talk about a loved companion
  3. Reduced stress that could lower blood pressure (increased stress is also a possibility)
  4. Getting more healthy exercise in a pleasant way, by walking, feeding, brushing, or even just moving to look at pets like fish or birds

According to a new study by the University of Minnesota Stroke Research Center, even having a cat somehow lowered their owners’ chances of dying of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, compared with people who didn’t own a cat.

  1. Feeling needed and unconditionally loved are common responses from pet owners
  2. More Tactile (touching) and cognitive (mental) stimulation are healthy for people of all ages
  3. Having a routine, structure and purpose is required to keep a pet healthy and happy and is good for the pet owner, too.
  4. Security for seniors living alone could be enhanced by a dog who barks at strangers or can let someone know when its owner is in trouble
  5. A reduction in Sundowners Syndrome symptoms may be one of those debatable benefits.

It’s true that nighttime can be very confusing and disorienting for people with Alzheimer’s disease. A pet may be able to lessen these symptoms by keeping them connected with reality and occupied during evening hours.

  1. Prompting better memory and recall of past events

Psychologist Penny B. Donnenfeld explains, “I’ve seen those with memory loss interact with an animal and regain access to memories from long ago. Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than their physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging.”

Difficulties:
Talking about the downside of pet ownership can be difficult, especially if your loved one already has a pet. No one wants to give up their beloved pet. Considerations under those circumstances can be different than adding a new pet to the family:

  • Is the health of the pet in jeopardy? Is your loved one still able to feed the pet and take care of its other needs?
  • If a visit to the vet is needed, is there someone who can help with a potentially dangerous trip outside the home?
  • Does the pet create a fall risk? The sudden movements of a cat or dog underfoot may throw an elderly person off balance and put them at risk for broken bones or other injuries.

“Over 86,000 people per year have to go to the emergency room because of falls involving their dogs and cats, and these fractures can be devastating for the elderly,” said Judy Stevens, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and lead author of a report on this peril.

  • As your loved one becomes less able to take care of themselves, taking care of a pet of any kind might add more stress to their lives, rather than reducing it.

A solution to some of these difficulties that could enable the pet to stay in the home might be to designate a willing family member, neighbor or friend as a pet helper. Even a grandchild or another child who loves dogs, cats, birds or fish might not mind coming in to check on a pet’s well-being, even feeding the pet, letting the dog out or scooping out the cat litter. If you don’t have someone who fills the bill, check with Dakota Home Care to see if companion care or an in-home health aide could be the answer to keeping your loved one and his or her pet together.
If you are considering acquiring a new pet for your loved one, here are eight questions to consider:

  1. Is your loved one so set in their ways that they will find this change too difficult?
  2. Has a pet been part of their lives in the past? An experienced pet owners might more easily make the adjustment.
  3. Does your loved one have disabilities or functional limitations that might make it difficult or even dangerous for them to take care of a dog, or even a cat, a bird or a fish?
  4. Does he or she have limitations that might put the pet at risk?
  5. What is the age and temperament of the pet under consideration? For example, senior dogs and cats are more clam, quiet and require less maintenance.
  6. Is the cost of pet ownership—food, medical care, grooming, transport to vet, etc.—comfortably within your loved one’s budget?
  7. Is there a backup plan for if or when your loved one may have to spend time in the hospital, rehab or an assisted living center?
  8. In the event of a pet’s death, will your loved one be severely debilitated by grief or depression?

Make a Pros & Cons list:
Before you decide on either keeping or adding a pet to your loved one’s environment, make a list of Pros & Cons, based on the information above and other personal considerations you might know about. If the decision is to adopt a pet, be sure to choose carefully, with the pets needs in mind, as well as what it could add to the life of the elderly person you are responsible for.
Remember, there are pet therapy home visit services all over the country. Alliance of Therapy Dogs and Therapy Dogs International are volunteer-run organizations with outposts all over the world. A local volunteer will come to your home and bring a trained service dog that is very well-behaved. The dog can play, cuddle, and perform commands during a half hour or one hour session. You might want to try this service before making a life-altering decision.
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