In the United States, an estimated thirty-seven percent of people between the age of fifty and sixty-seven are aging with pets. There is a growing body of research that suggests pet ownership and the human-animal interaction may offer a broad range of potential benefits that can support aging adults in maintaining their mental and physical health, independence, social connection, and social engagement. It may even reduce some symptoms of dementia and other mental health conditions. Pets can also help to mitigate the emotions and symptoms associated with isolation, which is typical for seniors and members of the aging population. This is especially true today as we watch the world wrestle with the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has driven many people of all ages inside due to social distancing and stay at home orders. For senior members of society, social isolation away from peers and social circles can be immensely challenging. Pet ownership may be beneficial for mental health in these unprecedented situations.
Below we have taken a few moments to highlight some of the physical, emotional, and social benefits pet ownership may afford to seniors.
Physical Health Benefits of Aging with Pets
Heart and Cardiovascular Health
Since the early 1980s, there have been studies on the health benefits of pet ownership. It was found that pet ownership made a significant difference in the survival rate for heart attack patients. These groundbreaking studies have led to many other reviews of the cardiovascular benefits of pet ownership. Some studies have shown a reduction in the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Similar studies have shown pet owners have lower systolic blood pressure, plasma triglycerides, cholesterol, and healthier physiologic responses to stress.
For older adults who have existing hypertension, the presence of a dog has been associated with lower blood pressure during normal day-to-day activities Pet owner may also be more likely to adhere to cardiac rehabilitation programs prescribed to them after a cardiac event.
Physical Activity and Mobility
It is common knowledge that regular physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and a host of other conditions. Several studies have shown that older adults who engage in more walking and physical activity as compared to non-owners are more likely to achieve recommended daily levels of exercise and activity.
Maintaining health and physical mobility is a crucial element of preserving independence as we age. Dog owners, due to the responsibility associated with walking and exercising their companions, are more likely to maintain their mobility because they are out and moving each day with their pets. Pet owners are also more likely to continue their activities of daily living, such as climbing stairs, cooking meals, and bathing independently. Dogs (more than many other pets) keep people active by providing a reason (or demanding acknowledgment) to get up in the morning.
Loneliness and social isolation have a profound impact on health and well-being, especially for seniors who often grow progressively isolated as time goes on. It is believed that the companionship provided to seniors by pets may provide health and psychological benefits by reducing stress, providing direct social support, and helping pet owners to stay socially engaged. This is especially beneficial while we are under quarantine and stay at home orders as related to COVID-19. Pets can provide someone to “be there” when seniors are forced to avoid their traditional social groups and family or friends outside of the home.
Emotional and Social Support
Social support and social facilitation
As one grows older, social circles may become smaller, and the social support provided by pet ownership may be of particular importance to many aging adults. Many seniors who live on their own or even in adult living communities often find themselves isolated and apart from friends and family. This could be for various reasons, including living away from family and the death or loss of family members. Living alone and having infrequent social contact or few social connections are all indicators of social isolation. Loneliness in older adults has been linked to depression, lower overall satisfaction with life, and with reductions in mobility and activities of daily living. Unfortunately, chronic isolation and loneliness are also associated with an increased likelihood of death.
Many seniors are accustomed to caring for others during their lives. This can include caring for a spouse, friends, children, or even their own aging parents. These caretaking responsibilities help people to feel needed and can enhance feelings of self-worth. Many of these opportunities to nurture and provide for others diminish as we age. So too can feelings of being valued, needed, and competent. Living alone or in an “empty nest” can bring about feelings of loneliness and isolation. The eventual and inevitable loss of friends, family, or partners can lead to depression. Pets have been shown to provide older adults with opportunities to feel needed and to provide nurturing care for another creature. They may also offer a buffer against the onset of depression.
Again, during the COVID-19, pandemic families all over the United States are following social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders. As a result, people are isolated from the outside world. While this is indeed necessary to slow the threat of the virus and to flatten the curve, it is challenging to mental and physical health for people of all ages. Also, due to stay at home orders, other activities and businesses have been ordered to shutter temporarily. This means stores, restaurants, and churches are closed. The local coffee shop where seniors may gather after church on Sunday is closed, as is the church. Gatherings and groups are also discouraged and, in some states, banned. This means painting groups or other community activities seniors may participate in are on pause. This leads to even more significant feelings of isolation and loneliness. Coupled with the inability to spend face to face time with family such as children and grandchildren, you have the perfect combination for depression and feelings of emotional instability.
In situations like this, a pet can provide a sense of purpose. They can also help to alleviate many of the moderate emotional effects associated with depression and loneliness. Waking up to the excited and happy eyes of your dog first thing in the morning when they are ready to go for a walk and spend time with you is a fantastic feeling. Similarly, curling up on the couch with a cat (or dog) and a good book or knitting is a relaxing and comforting way to pass the hours either over the weekend or during quarantine (whether voluntary or involuntary). Knowing you have another creature in your home who counts on you day in and day out for their physical and mental health can provide aging seniors with stability and the feelings of being needed that they may be lacking.
This is not to say a pet is for everyone. Aging with pets is a responsibility, and not all seniors may be able to handle it for a variety of reasons. If your senior loved one lives in a senior living community such as Baxter Senior Living here in Anchorage, Alaska, check with the facility about their senior living pet policy. Not all Alaska assisted living homes are pet friendly. Some may not allow pets, whereas others may have restrictions on type, breed, or size. There may also be care related restrictions such as walking or disposal of waste. If you feel a pet may be beneficial to the mental health of your loved one, you may also wish to check with their medical provider to make sure this is a physical responsibility they can handle. At Baxter Senior Living, we are pet friendly and would be happy to speak to you about how to integrate a pet into the life of your loved one.