Why Are Pets Important to Seniors?
The 65-plus population, particularly vulnerable to loneliness and stress related diseases, can reap enormous benefits from pet companionship.
Animals Provide Family and Friendship
"Pets are an important form of social contact," says Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for Human-Animal Bond at the School of veterinary medicine at Purdue University. "For older people who may be less mobile and who have few or limited companions, animals provide family and friendship, something to care for and to be recognized by."
Everyone, young and old, he says, has a real need to nurture something or someone. "This need to nurture does not stop when our children are grown or are no longer babies, or when our grandchildren are grown," Beck says. "The nice thing about a pet is that she may grow older, but she will never grow up. She will always be your baby."
Studies Show Pets Boost Physical Health
A growing number of researchers believe that pets also help boost physical health. Over the last two decades, studies have linked pet ownership with increased chances of survival after a heart attack and reducing blood pressure. Others have shown that pets can sometimes help people with Alzheimer's.
Researchers found petting a dog prompted levels of the "feel good" hormone serotonin to rise in humans and help fight depression. Serotonin levesl rise dramatically after interaction with live animals, specifically dogs says researcher Rebecca Johnson, professor of nursing and veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "This hormone is critical in the psychological well-being of an individual." "In addition to serotonin, we also are seeing increases in the amounts of prolactin and oxytocin, more of those 'feel good' hormones," says Johnson.
According to Dr. Lynette Hart, associate professor at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, "Studies have shown that Alzheimer's patients have fewer anxious outbursts if there is an animal in the home. Caregivers also feel less burdened when there is a pet, particularly if it is a cat, which generally requires less care than a dog." Alzheimer's patients who were attached to their pets also had fewer reported mood disorders, Hart adds.
Pets Help With Stress
According to Dr. Judith M. Siegel, professor of Public Health at UCLA, seniors who own pets typically cope better with stressful life events. without entering the healthcare system. Several years ago, Siegel and her colleagues studied nearly 1,000 non-institutionalized older adult Medicare patients. She found that those who owned pets appeared to experience less distress and required fewer visits to their physicians than non-owners.
All this is not to say that pet ownership should be seen as a universal panacea. While a pet might be helpful in preventing someone's blood pressure from going up, Beck says, it is not a "cure" for hypertension.
People are living longer through improved medical treatment and preventative care. Health professionals confirm that the human-animal bond increases attention span, reduces social isolation and improves physiological conditions such as lowering blood pressure.
The bottom line is that pets are like "emotional vitamins." If you feel better psychologically and emotionally, every system in your body is going to function more efficiently. The 65-plus population, particularly vulnerable to loneliness and stress-related diseases, can reap enormous benefits from pet companionship.