By Barbara Sharnak for WebVet
Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, VMD
Animals fill a void in the lives of the elderly who are alone without friends or loved ones. Pets can greatly increase quality of life for many senior citizens. Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, recalls the story of Annie, a depressed 95-year-old who, after being given a dog named Pumpkin, began to eat again. When Annie’s landlord sued her for violating a no-pet policy, she was asked in deposition what would happen if Pumpkin were taken away. “I’ll die,” Annie replied.
Pets for the Elderly Foundation matches seniors with cats and dogs by underwriting the pets’ adoptions. “Those who are responsible for a pet are likely to take better care of themselves, because they feel someone is counting on them,” said general manager Susan Kurowski. The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interactions published a study of elderly dog owners revealing 75 percent of men and 67 percent of women considered their dog their only friend.
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While Pets for the Elderly focuses on matching senior citizens with cats and dogs, birds, rabbits, and fish still provide the desired effects. The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interactions also published a study that found elderly women in nursing homes preferred an hour-long session interacting with a rabbit to an hour of open leisure time. Animals don’t judge the people who love them, making the comfort of a lap animal, the liveliness of an aviary, or an aquarium’s tranquility unconditional pleasures.
Proof on the Charts
Donna Williamson and her cat, Moochie, participants in the Delta Society Pet Partner Program, were called on to visit a terminal patient. When they arrived, family members greeted them in tears as the patient had slipped into a coma. Donna put Moochie in bed with the man, who awoke from the coma, took his arms out from under the sheets and began petting the cat. “The nurse sat there with her mouth wide open,” Williamson said. “Every time I see that nurse, she relates what a miracle that was.”
The Delta Society is committed to improving human health through service and therapy animals. While animals are proven health aids to all people, their benefits to senior citizens is extraordinary. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that elderly pet owners are more active, cope better with stress, and have lower blood pressure than seniors without pets.
Dr. Edward Creagan of the Mayo Clinic Medical School observed, “If pet ownership was a medication, it would be patented tomorrow.” Whether it’s walking a dog or brushing a cat, activity benefits the cardiovascular system and helps keep joints flexible. Creagan cited a study of patients 12 months after suffering heart attacks, finding 9 out of 10 of those with pets survived, opposed to 7 out of 10 without pets. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Issues reveals that dogs, especially, promote exercise; owners spend an average of 1.5 hours outdoors daily. Even fish foster healthy living – a Purdue University study found that the presence of an aquarium at mealtimes increases appetites of Alzheimer’s patients who don't eat enough for good nutrition.
Introducing a Social Life
“We had an elderly gentleman adopt a puppy today,” Michelle McCann of participant PAWS in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., wrote to Pets for the Elderly. “He was standing in the lobby holding his puppy as we all 'oohed' and 'ahhed,' and he was laughing about what a chick magnet his puppy was going to be!”
Animals are indeed social magnets. Nursing home communities such as Silverado and Eden Alternative were founded on principles of meaningful interactions driven by an animal-filled environment. Administrator Noralynn Snow houses dogs, cats, birds, fish — even kangaroos — at Silverado’s Aspen Park facility. The latter especially, she says, has the “ooh, ahh” factor, which encourages families normally shy of the residents at the home, to visit. Cooperative animal care also spurs interaction between the residents.
Different Pets, Different Frets
Though all animals offer benefits to the elderly, some are better suited toward certain individuals. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development found that cats offer many of the social aspects sought by lonely people who cannot provide the regular exercise dogs require.
Additionally, “Many elderly people also get a real satisfaction out of caged birds,” said Dr. William Fortney of Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “They are easy keepers and very social animals.” Noralynn Snow of Silverado notes that bird noises are especially important to those who are bedridden, because they can derive a sense of the outdoors from birds. Even rats provide companionship. Veterinarian Dr. Cam Day says, “Rats are easy to keep and are not expensive to buy. I know of a hip granny who has a pet rat and adores it, too.”
“Policies that encourage pet ownership among the aged, either at home or as they make the transition to elder living facilities, can improve some medical conditions and alleviate loneliness,” said Nalini Saligram, board chair of PAWSitive InterAction. Be it on a doctor’s chart or in the wordless testimony of the animal itself, creatures of all kinds strengthen the lives they touch.
Last Updated: 08/01/2009
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