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How Pets Can Benefit Older People’s Mental and Physical Health

By Sixty and Me June 17, 2020 Health and Fitness

Are you thinking about getting a pet? Do you share your home with a furry friend already? Aside from being cute and furry (or feathery), pets can bring a lot more than we think to our lives, especially as we get older.

Feelings of loneliness and isolation are very common among seniors. Spending more time at home, and sometimes the lack of mobility, can keep us from doing activities we used to do. Pets keep us active and some need daily walks that will get us up and out the door every day.

Pets are a great way to benefit our mental and physical health. They can provide invaluable company and have a positive impact on our wellbeing.

Benefits of Having a Pet

There is a multitude of perks to sharing your life with an animal: from lowering your blood pressure to losing weight, to name a few.

Increase Happiness

Sharing our lives with an animal is proven to reduce stress and anxiety by adjusting hormone levels in the body. Petting an animal releases serotonin, the happy hormone, in the brain. This, in turn, lowers blood pressure and brings positivity. Pets can also reduce stress and aggressive behavior in Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

Provide Purpose

In the national poll on healthy aging from the University of Michigan, 73% of older adults who own a pet said that their pets provide a sense of purpose. The poll, conducted with over 2000 participants between the ages of 50 and 80 in the US, also states that 79% of them feel less stressed because of their pets.

To quote the poll report:

“These poll results suggest that pets can provide a myriad of benefits for older adults, including boosts to emotional and physical health. The majority of pet owners believe that their animals connect them to other people, provide companionship, reduce stress, help them be physically active, and cope with physical and emotional symptoms, including pain. They also help them to enjoy life, feel loved, and provide a sense of purpose.”

Nicole Arzt, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who serves on the advisory board for Family Enthusiast, says: “Pets require structure and daily scheduling. You need to set aside time for cleaning, grooming, feeding, and otherwise taking care of your pet. This kind of routine can be tremendously beneficial for older adults – it can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment in daily living.”

Boost Activity Level

The level of physical activity required from you will depend on the animal you choose to bring into your home.

Dr. Esteban Kosak MD expertly mentions: “Most breeds of dogs require one to two walks every day, all year round. Walking a dog regularly can have huge benefits to mental wellbeing, as well as weight, bone and heart health and vitamin D exposure, to name a few.”

Loving Companionship

Living alone can get lonely for the senior who has lost a partner or friends and family. In such circumstances, pets can be a great presence at home. They live in the moment and love unconditionally. They won’t judge you and will always be happy to be with you.

Daniel Caughill, Co-Founder of The Dog Tale, says: “…those in the golden age of life are at a stage where they can regrettably name as many deceased friends as they can living ones, and getting together with loved ones can be a challenge. Having a dog or cat at home brings a little brightness into an otherwise lonely day.”

Socialize and Make New Friends

Pets, especially dogs, will get you out of the house. Simply walking your dog or going to a dog park will certainly have you striking up conversations with other dog owners; very likely people you would normally not talk to. You can make new friends and form life-long bonds with like-minded people.

If you’re single, you may even find a love interest. Many movies and books have showcased that dog parks are a great place to meet someone.

Feeling Safe

Many seniors, especially those living alone, have a hard time at night or going out because they feel defenseless. With a dog by their side, however, many confess they feel protected and safe. They can certainly have a peaceful sleep and a great time in the park.

How Pets Can Help Older People Heal

Once we get to our 60s and beyond, we tend to get sick with minor or sometimes major physical ailments. Healing time may take longer than it did even a decade earlier. Having someone to take care of and think about can speed up healing.

Medical advisors suggest that pets can even help boost their owners’ immune system. Dogs are particularly good at this as they constantly bring new bacteria into the home environment. The exposure isn’t threatening but can jump-start the immune system and provide an adequate response.

How to Choose the Best Pet for You

Choosing the appropriate pet for your lifestyle is crucial. Dogs need more care than cats, including daily walks. Choose a pet that fits your level of activity, or the level of activity you want to achieve.

Remember that baby animals like kittens and puppies are much more active. Look into adopting an older animal if raising a hyperactive baby seems overwhelming for you.

When we think of pets we tend to think of dogs and cats but there are many other animals with whom we can share our homes.

Here are a few things to consider when seeking to adopt a pet at 60 and over:

  • Do you have experience with certain pets? If not, some research may be necessary.
  • How much can you budget for a pet? Bigger dogs eat more.
  • Do you have any disabilities? Some dogs can become trained assistance dogs.
  • Do you want a baby animal or an older one?
  • How much daily physical activity can you allow yourself to do with the pet?

Other Ways to Have Animals in Your Life

Sometimes it’s not possible to own a pet and take care of it 24/7. Let’s take a look at other ways you can benefit from the presence of animals in your life.

Fostering a Pet

Foster programs are a great option if permanently adopting an animal is not possible for you. Usually, foster pets come into your care for a few weeks until they are placed with a forever home.

Pat Deshong, President of Furry Friends Adoption Clinic & Ranch in Florida, launched a Senior-to-Senior fostering program which “focuses on pairing Furry Friends, aged 5 and older, with members of our senior community. […] We give companionship and a new sense of purpose in the form of tail wags and nose kisses!”

Check with your local animal shelter to see if they have a foster program that you can sign up for.

Volunteering at a Shelter

Some living situations make it impossible to have a pet in the home. You may be living in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Why not inquire at your local animal shelter to ask if they have a volunteer program? Chances are, they need help with dog walking, cat socializing, grooming, and general basic care.

Pet Sitting

Pet sitters are in high demand for frequent travelers who need to make sure that their furry family member is in good hands while they are away. Sitting can be done in the owner’s home, at the veterinary clinic, or at the sitter’s house. A fun way to make a few extra bucks and spend time with loving animals.

Make a Plan for Your Pet

Remember that pets can live for a long time. An average-sized dog can live up to 16 years and sometimes more. Cats can live longer, and you can expect a healthy cat to live up to 20 years given the proper care.

Adopting a pet later in life may mean that the animal will outlive its owner. As you would plan your estate with a will in the event of your death, it’s also important to consider who will care for your pet when you are no longer there. Speak with family and friends about your plan and rest easy knowing that your beloved pet will be in good hands.

Adopt, Rescue, Foster… and Neuter

Adopting and rescuing an animal is better than purchasing one in a pet store or breeder. Shelters are overflowing with great animals looking for the opportunity to find the perfect home. Shelters typically have rooms where you can spend some one-on-one time with the animals which make it easier to find your perfect match.

Remember Bob Barker from the Price is Right? He would end each show with “Barker reminding you: help control the pet population. Have your pet spayed or neutered.” Find a good vet you can trust and look for senior discounts that are sometimes offered.

Will you be adopting a new furry family member? What species of animal would work best for you? How do you plan to care for your pet? Have you looked into fostering options? Or do you already have a furry friend and want to tell us about him or her? We would love to hear your pet stories. Let’s talk about our pets.

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The Author

Sixty and Me is a community of over 500,000 women over 60 founded by Margaret Manning. Our editorial team publishes articles on lifestyle topics including fashion, dating, retirement and money.

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