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The Benefits of Pet Ownership, Therapy for Seniors

There are a number of ways that older adults can improve their quality of life. They find enjoyable activities, hobbies, and forms of exercise to keep their bodies in shape and their minds sharp, and they can form social circles to help to alleviate the loneliness that many may experience.

Interacting with animals can improve the lives of seniors in a number of ways. Besides the sometimes obvious benefits (e.g., walking a dog is great cardiovascular exercise), the simple act of interacting with animals – petting, brushing, feeding – can provide both a calming activity and a means to stay engaged with the world.

Animals, especially pets, also make older adults feel needed, which can translate into larger feelings of purpose and self-worth. In addition, the unconditional love of a pet can lead to more socialization with others, lowered stress, increased mental stimulation and a renewed interest in life.

Pet Ownership

When an older adult finds the right pet and brings them home, they often develop a mutually beneficial, loving and caring relationship. When thinking about pets, those that come to mind are most likely dogs and cats, but other types of animals also make good pets. It’s important to select a pet that suits the senior’s living environment and lifestyle. When choosing a pet, always remember that adopting an animal is a long-term commitment that requires care and attention on an ongoing basis.

Physical Health

Regular exercise increases the overall health of seniors, and pet owners spend an average of 22 additional minutes walking per day. Consumer Affairs reports that seniors with pets have lower blood pressure and make fewer visits to the doctor than seniors without pets.

In one study, 94% of heart patients with pets survived heart attacks compared with only 72% without pets. Other physical benefits of pet ownership include reduction in risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 26%. This is partly due to pet owners reaching the recommended level of physical activity of about 2.5 hours per week.

Social Health

Having a pet gives older adults a reason to get out and interact with the community. Approximately 40% of pet owners report receiving social support from people they met through their pet. Most communities have pet rescue centers where seniors can volunteer, and some organizations also allow seniors to bring pets into hospitals and nursing homes to help cheer up patients. Finally, talking about pets is a surefire icebreaker which makes it easy for seniors to strike up a conversation with just about anyone.

Emotional Health

All pets, regardless of species, need care and attention. Pets can give seniors a reason to get out of bed in the morning and start the day. Dogs, in particular, need regular bathing, grooming, walking, feeding, and bathroom breaks. They also need time to play and run off some energy.

Many types of pets enjoy being held and cuddled. Some pets have a keen ability to provide emotional feedback and can even help their owners stay calm during stressful times. Pets can also help enhance feelings of security (both inside and outside the home).

What Characteristics Make the Ideal Pet for Older Adults?

  • Dogs

Many dogs make great companions for seniors. Generally, smaller dogs are easier to care for, and those with smaller dogs have more options for housing and travel. Puppies are very high energy and require lots of time and consistent training to make them good companions. Adopting an older dog from a shelter or rescue is often a good choice for seniors.

  • Cats

Cats can be fascinating and affectionate pets, and shelters typically have many older house-trained cats that are looking for homes. Cats require less space and energy to care for than dogs and are often content with an indoor-only lifestyle.

  • Fish

If you’ve noticed that many doctor and dentist’s offices have aquariums, that’s because it’s mesmerizing and relaxing to watch fish swim around in a tank. Betta fish are low maintenance because they don’t require a heater or filter. Tetras, Guppies, and Angelfish are also strikingly beautiful fish to add to an aquarium. Goldfish are another pretty fish that don’t require a heater or much maintenance.

Pet Therapy

Pet therapy (also known as animal assisted therapy) for the elderly has become a popular method of mild therapy for seniors who can no longer care for a pet themselves. From pet therapy for depression, anxiety, dementia, and more, the types of therapy can vary depending on the needs of the community and the seniors who live there.

Recent studies have revealed that as little as fifteen minutes of bonding time with an animal promotes positive hormonal changes in the brain. Serotonin (the “feel-good” hormone) is produced, allowing stress levels to drop. It’s with this in mind that many senior living communities are finding ways to incorporate and embrace pet therapy/animal assisted therapy.

Animal Ownership and Therapy at The Legacy Willow Bend

The Legacy Willow Bend provides a number of opportunities for residents to own and interact with animals on a regular basis. Several independent living residents own their own pets, and they will regularly take them to visit with our residents in memory care.

Outside volunteers bring therapy dogs to visit residents in our Healthcare Center every first and third Monday of the month. Individual volunteers also bring their dogs in on the weekends to visit with assisted living residents, and during the week, one woman visits with her dog every second Saturday.

Additionally, the community has worked with Temple Emanu-El to organize pet blessings, and we are even open to visits from exotic animals, including rabbits, horses, reptiles and more. In fact, residents in our healthcare center were recently treated to a visit by two very special mini horses!

To learn more about The Legacy Willow Bend, or if you are interested in becoming a pet volunteer, visit our volunteer page or give us a call at (972) 468-6208.