Sharing Your Life With a Pet
At a time in life when its difficult to get your loved one to remember to eat or take their medications, it may seem counterintuitive to consider adding a pet to mom or dad’s list of responsibilities, but the truth is there is plenty of documentation out there supporting the idea. In fact, there is even some science out there telling us that having a pet to take care of can not only improve a person of any age’s mental well-being, but actually prolong an elderly person’s life.
“A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society demonstrated that independently living older people who had pets tended to have better physical health and mental wellbeing than those that did not. They were more active, coped better with stress, and had better overall health, as well as significantly lower blood pressure overall, than their contemporaries without pets.”
In Western culture, we tend to nurture the pets we love like children, making sure they are fed and clean when we may not think to do those things for ourselves. For an older individual with a strict schedule for sleeping, eating, and taking various medications that may or may not require an empty stomach, having a dog, cat, or bird that requires regular upkeep can be a reminder to see to their own needs in those regards.
The Benefits are Physical, Mental, and Emotional
The emotional and mental health benefits seniors get from their beloved pets far out-ways the care they give to them. Having a pet can stave off depression, which is an unfortunate side-effect of having outlived many of one’s contemporaries. They provide physical contact as well as offer a support system for those who’s loved ones can’t be with them on a regular basis. Add to that, an excuse to leave the seclusion of their homes, because dogs need to be walked and picked up after, and pet owners benefit from that added activity without even being conscious of it. There is no easier icebreaker for striking up a conversation with new people than by having a cuddly furball accompany you on a daily walk. Your loved one won’t even have to make the first move, because people just accept that dog owners want to hear how adorable their canine companions are!
You might consider a cat if the senior you care for is truly homebound. Cats are creatures of extreme routine and will let their people know when dinnertime and breakfast are running late. They also make wonderfully warm, living lap blankets that shower you with sandpaper kisses when you see to their needs. Because cats love to play, their companionship also encourages their owners to be more active, even if it is just to pull a piece of string across the floor for them to catch in their furry paws.
A pet’s living conditions can also be indicative of their pet parent’s health and well-being. If you arrive at your elderly uncle’s house to find the litter box full, the food bowl empty, and the kitty howling, it could be a red flag that something troubling has occurred.
Check with a Doctor Before Making the Commitment
Of course, having a pet may not be appropriate for a person with a compromised immune system. It’s important to check with a doctor before inviting any creature to live in your home, especially those that go outside, come from exotic places, or have dander. If a person is bedridden, they won’t able to feed of walk a pet, or even clean a fish tank. This may be something to discuss with a visiting aid if its something your loved one really wants. It is obviously worth considering given all the physical and mental benefits.
It is also important to settle on a contingency plan should the senior in your care need to be removed from their home. Is this a pet you would be willing to take? Is the nursing home pet friendly? More and more facilities ARE accepting pets because they recognize the quality of life benefits they provide for even the most ill of patients. Making these decisions BEFORE the unfortunate happens can provide both you and your treasured relative with piece of mind that reduces stress in the long haul. A person is far more likely to report health problems if they don’t think their pet will end up at a shelter while they are convalescing elsewhere. Pet sitters can also be found online at National Association of Professional Pet Sitters.
An Animal Companion can Give Renewed Purpose
The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter which pet an older person decides to share their life with, having one can give a person reason to get up in the morning, a companion to spend the day with, and a much-needed reminder to take care of their own needs. Studies support this concept with science and anecdotal evidence, and animals are increasingly incorporated into therapeutic settings targeting improved mental and physical health. This science of Human–Animal Interaction (HAI) seeks to understand how our relationships with animals can influence both human and animal health, and has grown considerably in recent years
“Pets provide other intangibles, too. “Dogs and cats live very much in the present,” says Dr. Jay P. Granat, a New Jersey-based psychotherapist. “They don’t worry about tomorrow, which can be a very scary concept for an older person. An animal embodies that sense of here and now, and it tends to rub off on people.”