The Truth About PET Cancer - Episode 1
Pet Therapy Provides Far-reaching Health Benefits For Older Adults
Between encouraging exercise and soothing lonely hearts, pet adoption can help bring better health to their senior owners.
By Erin Courtenay
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When Alyson, a 20-year-old college student, brought a kitten home for her grandmother, she and her family learned firsthand of the positive affect a pet can have on the health and outlook of an older person. Instead of spending most of her time sleeping or watching television, Alyson's grandmother became more active — grooming, feeding, and playing with the new kitten. "She is definitely happier now that she has a companion," Alyson says.
Although she may not realize it, Alyson's grandmother is benefiting from what researchers and physicians call animal-assisted therapy, or pet therapy. Using animals to offset emotional and even physical problems and to improve quality of life is especially helpful for seniors, who as a group commonly experience loneliness, depression, and loss of mobility. It takes just a bit of careful planning to ensure that the relationship is a happy, beneficial one for all concerned.
Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
A growing body of research is revealing the psychological and physiological benefits that pet ownership confers on people of all ages — and on seniors in particular. "We know from studies that interacting with pets can have a direct influence on your health, from lowering your blood pressure and increasing levels of serotonin to helping you get more exercise," says Dr. Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviorist and the author ofFor the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend. Well-managed pet therapy programs in nursing homes have been shown to reduce depression and even help mitigate the social withdrawal that is often associated with Alzheimer's disease, says McConnell.
Sometimes, as seniors age, they become more withdrawn and solitary, losing both the desire and ability to develop new relationships. Not only do pets offer much-needed companionship, but they can increase the quantity and the quality of social interactions among their human owners. Seniors who are pet owners engage in more frequent conversations, for example. Unlike their non-pet-owning peers, who tend to dwell on the past, pet owners focus on current interests and activities, which provide common ground with new acquaintances and increase the opportunity to build new social bonds.
Fuzzy, furry cats and dogs are not the only creatures that can provide the emotional and physical benefits associated with pet therapy. Fish, birds, and other animals can reduce loneliness and encourage healthy behaviors as well. For example, researchers from Purdue University noticed that residents of special care units of Alzheimer's patients began to eat more healthfully when aquariums were introduced into their dining rooms. In another study, conducted in northern Italy, seniors who were given canaries had fewer cases of depression in comparison to those in the study without pets, and enjoyed an increased quality of life as a result.
Seniors and Pets: Tips for Making the Right Choices
A little bit of forethought in selecting the right animal and planning for its care can make a big difference in the success of the relationship, for both pet and owner. Issues to think through before adoption include:
- Type of pet.Give careful thought to what would be the right kind of pet for you or your loved one's lifestyle and activity level. Dogs, for instance, make wonderful companions but demand greater care and training than cats, birds, or fish.
- Future situations.Choose a pet that's good for both your current circumstances and what's in the foreseeable future. Are you planning to stay in the same place for many years, or will you be making a transition to an assisted-living facility? Some retirement communities have regulations that would affect the type of pet you could bring with you.
- Allergy considerations.People with allergies should be especially cautious when choosing to adopt a pet. Not only can allergies to pet dander cause trouble, but animals can track pollen, dust, and mites indoors.
- Cost.Seniors living on a fixed income must be extra conscientious about planning for the additional costs associated with caring for a pet — including food, litter (for cats), vet bills, and medications.
- Contingency care.Make sure to plan for the pet's future in the event that you or your loved one is no longer able to care properly for the animal. And be sure you're prepared for the sense of loss that this can bring. For many who have come to depend on their pets for companionship, separation from the animal can be devastating, and additional human attention will be essential.
Alternatives to Pet Ownership for Seniors
Luckily, it isn't always necessary for someone to take on the full responsibility of pet ownership to reap the physical and emotional benefits of interacting with an animal. Increasingly, senior facilities are turning to pet visitation therapy to help improve the quality of life for residents.
One initiative, , a nursing home reform effort, successfully uses resident pets to ameliorate loneliness, helplessness, and boredom — the "three plagues" of conventional nursing care facilities. Another project, the Delta Society's Pet Partners Program, trains volunteers and their pets to be part of visiting animal programs in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and other facilities. Outreach programs like these give senior animal lovers the chance to interact with pets without the responsibility of providing full-time care.
To learn more about animal-assisted therapy for seniors, visit the — you can read more about the health benefits of pets and find a Pet Partners program in your area. If you or a loved one would like a pet but have concerns about the expenses involved, visit , an organization that assists seniors with pet adoption fees.
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