Community efforts help seniors take advantage of health benefits of pets

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Image by LollypopFarm via flickr.

Image by LollypopFarm via flickr.

Pet adoption is top of mind: Our family just brought home a 15-month old shepherd mix named Duke. After just a few days, the health benefits – both physical and psychological – are already apparent. For older adults, owning a pet can help decrease loneliness, depression, improve blood pressure and cholesterol, and offer new opportunities for exercise and socialization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some research links pet ownership to the increased production of oxcytocin. This story in The Huffington Post looks at some of the cardiovascular improvements among pet owners, and this Los Angeles Times piece from 2011 lists the pros and cons of pet ownership at any age.

However, a 2012 article in The New York Times suggested that many benefits are over-hyped. Falls over pets or their toys is a real danger, for example. Walking an animal can be challenging and downright dangerous – especially in bad weather. Cost of care is a factor also – food, veterinary care and other pet expenses can be difficult to meet for low- and fixed-income elderly. And, some researchers contend that the jury is still out on issues such as happiness and depression. A recent survey of Canadian older adults produced mixed results when it came to pet ownership. According to a poll conducted by AARP Bulletin, there is some positive association between pet ownership and exercise – although how much is not clear.

Several pet adoption programs are designed specifically for those 55 and older. Cats are less demanding physically than are dogs and may be a good option for seniors who crave companionship but are not willing or able to walk a dog several times daily. Nonprofit organizations such as Pets on Wheels use animal therapy to connect with seniors in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Their volunteers report that even the most depressed residents respond positively to the visits, which help relieve boredom and mitigate social isolation for many.

Is there a community program that brings pets for nursing home visits? Or what about a local animal shelter with a special adoption program geared towards seniors? Some may have volunteer or fostering opportunities which allow older adults to care for pets without shouldering the entire financial or physical burden.

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