The Golden Years – Pets: Offering Seniors So Much More Than Mere Companionship

by Sherrin Griffin VP, Operations, Sidney SeniorCare – 

I had many different pets growing up: a few fish and water spiders from my backyard creek; a gerbil here and there; a cat that lasted just long enough to climb up our living room curtains; and of course the family dog, Candy, who stole all of our hearts. Always an animal lover, I just knew that pets would be in my life forever. Of course, having your first pet as a grownup is pretty special but now, as a senior tweenie, I can confidently say that when one enters their senior years, that’s when pets really shine.

When it comes to unconditional love and affection, our pets trump anyone and everyone. Whether dog, cat or even a charismatic, chatty bird, pets are a wonderful addition to any household, offering companionship, emotional comfort, security and even health benefits. Pets are natural de-stressors for us humans, and it’s a well-documented medical fact that they have the power to reduce our stress level and blood pressure.

For seniors, especially those who live alone, pets can singlehandedly improve quality of life and well-being. Seniors can be prone to loneliness and depression; some have lost their spouse or life partner, and some have very few visitors. The utter adoration of a pet can not only greatly reduce feelings of loss and sadness, but has a wonderful natural ability to improve overall mood and make us smile. Pets also live in the here and now – they don’t worry about tomorrow – which helps seniors to live more in the present rather than mourning the past. Their complete love, acceptance and desire to please us makes us feel valued and more secure in our own skins.

Taking care of a pet gives seniors purpose and the daily routine of feeding, walking and grooming a pet is healthy for seniors. Dogs and cats also encourage seniors to be more active, to get outdoors more for walks and engage in play, boosting physical activity which is linked to better cognitive health.

Researchers state that having a long-term pet companion can delay memory loss and cognitive decline. Owning a pet for over five years may help keep cognitive skills sharp as we age, according to a new study, the first of its kind, by researchers at the University of Florida, University of Michigan and Virginia Commonwealth University. The researchers found that adults aged 50 or older who had owned any kind of pet for more than five years showed slower decline in working verbal memory – including being able to recall words – over time compared to non-pet owners. The study included pets such as dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, birds, fish and even reptiles.

The benefits of pet therapy for seniors with Alzheimer’s are also well researched. Pets help to direct the senior’s attention to the animal, helping to decrease anxiety, agitation and restlessness caused by the disease. Interacting and playing with the animal releases calming endorphins. Pets’ friendly and non-threatening manner enables them to help seniors with dementia be more interactive and engaged, even those who are not able to do so in social settings with other adults.

Overall, there are countless benefits to experience as a senior pet owner, with the “right” pet suited to the senior’s lifestyle and abilities.

And so, while I may inwardly grumble as I put on my rainboots and jacket, I know that taking my little Roxy for her daily walk – inclement weather and all – is helping to keep me fit, physically and mentally, well into my senior years. Now, that takes companionship to a whole new level, doesn’t it?

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