Scientists have long been studying the emotional, physical, and mental benefits of pets for older adults. The results are unsurprising: Senior pet parents tend to be healthier, happier, and more emotionally stable than those without pets. Animal companions offer everything from love and friendship to a sense of security and responsibility. For aging adults, this can mean fewer visits to the doctor, increased self-confidence, and a more positive outlook on life.
For older individuals looking to improve their quality of life with a pet, adopting a puppy or kitten is typically not ideal. Young pets require a degree of energy and patience that an older person may not be able or willing to give. That is why an increasing number of seniors are making the choice to adopt older cats and dogs—animals who otherwise might never make it out of the shelter.
Older pets provide seniors with all of the benefits and few of the challenges of animal companionship. They already know the rules of good behavior and the meaning of the word “no,” and they tend to be calmer and more settled. Because their personalities are already well established, what you see is what you get—seniors don’t have to worry that the animal they picked out at the shelter will act completely different once he or she arrives at their new home.
Senior pets are an excellent choice for older individuals, and their presence in the home can improve the lives of aging adults in a multitude of ways. For seniors who adopt senior pets, the benefits go far beyond what you may think.
A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that independently living seniors with a pet tend to have better physical and mental health than those who do not. The study also found that senior pet parents are better able to remain emotionally stable during a crisis. In a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, it was shown that people with pets tend to have significantly lower systolic blood pressure and cholesterol levels than those who do not.
According to the National Institutes of Health Technology Assessment Workshop, the presence of animals “is associated with the tendency of older persons to smile and talk more, reach out toward people and objects, exhibit more alertness and attention, and experience more symptoms of well-being and less depression.”
Caring for a pet invariably means increased exercise, socialization, and responsibility—all things that lead to significantly healthier lives. In fact, there is a growing amount of scientific evidence suggesting that people with pets make fewer visits to the doctor. For seniors who live on their own, as well as for those who reside in assisted living facilities, the simple act of petting a cat or dog can lead to drastic improvements in general health and satisfaction with life.
Pets provide seniors with a level of companionship that can fight depression, improve self-confidence, and combat feelings of loneliness and boredom. An animal’s non-judgmental and wholly unconditional love can touch aging adults in ways that another human may not be able to. And while they do not require endless hours of cooperative playtime, senior pets still encourage older people to interact and engage with them. Seniors who may otherwise feel a loss of purpose in life are invigorated by their pet’s presence, and benefit greatly from having such a loyal and loving friend. In addition, taking care of a pet means responsibility and routine, both of which actively lead to better, more fulfilling lives.
Senior people and senior pets have a lot to offer one another. If you know an older person who you think may benefit from adopting a senior pet, sit down with them and discuss the advantages of animal companionship. Don’t just go out and adopt a pet for them—they may not want the responsibility. One of the best parts of adopting a pet is experiencing that special moment when you fall in love with a specific animal. There are many organizations that bring together seniors with older pets, and they can help your loved one find their perfect furry match.
Pets are Wonderful Support San Francisco put together The Health Benefits of Companion Animals, a report discussing all the major benefits of the human-animal bond.
Here are some highlights:
People with pets experience decreased risk factors for cardiovascular disease, particularly lower systolic blood pressure, plasma cholesterol, and plasma triglycerides.
People may experience a decreased heart rate simply from petting an animal or watching fish in an aquarium.
Scientists found decreased pulse rate, increased skin temperature, and decreased muscle tension in elderly people watching an aquarium.
Following a quiet 30-minute session of interacting with a dog, people experience enhanced hormone levels of dopamine and endorphins associated with happiness and well-being, and decreased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
People experience a greater reduction in cardiovascular stress response when they are in the presence of a dog, as opposed to being in the presence of a friend or spouse.
One study found that elderly schizophrenic patients who participated in animal-assisted therapy had increased independent self-care, mobility, and interpersonal contact.