People’s love for their pets will never age.
Statistics show that over two-thirds of households across the country have at least one animal companion living in their homes. That fact shows that people of all ages love their pets – especially senior citizens. And who can blame them? There are a plethora of proven health benefits associated with having, and caring for, a pet. Keeping active, creating a sense of purpose, decreased stress levels and companionship are just a few of these benefits.
Historically speaking, older adults have had to part ways with their furry companions once they moved into an assisted living facility. This separation made the already stressful process of relocating even more difficult, for both the senior and the pet. However, times are changing, and many more senior living communities are allowing pets to move in with their owners! Of course, there may be limitations on the number of pets, their breed or size.
In this guide, we will go over the extensive health benefits associated with seniors and their pets, the best companion animals for seniors, and how to find the right pet-friendly senior living community.
Health Benefits & Pets | The Healing Power of Pets for Seniors
Whether we like to admit it or not: Growing older can be very lonely.
As friends and loved ones move or pass away, it can become difficult to leave the house to participate in once-loved activities. However, there is one source of true companionship and comfort that benefits older adults immensely: pets.
How do pets make perfect companions for seniors?
Exercise partner – When you own a dog, whether small or large, you will be required to take them out on walks regularly. In addition, most cats and dogs enjoy some playtime throughout the day as well. These activities require an older adult to be engaged in physical activity, which always has a positive impact on quality of life!
Stress relief – It’s a well documented area – petting a dog or cat, for example, helps to significantly lower blood pressure. Spending time with beloved animals also increases the calming hormone oxytocin (known as the “love and bonding” hormone) in the brain, while decreasing cortisol (the stress hormone). This calming effect can help relieve chronic pain and can greatly reduce stress levels, lowering the risk of not only anxiety, but cardiovascular disease as well.
Sense of purpose – Knowing that your pet depends on your for food, water, exercise and companionship gives owners a sense of purpose. For an elderly person, taking care of their pet becomes a routine, giving a structure and purpose to their daily lives which sometimes goes missing after retirement.
Companionship – As people age, we tend to start feeling lonelier. This could be due to having a hard time leaving the house, or a lack of social opportunities. Companion cats or dogs can help lessen any feelings of loneliness for seniors.
Increased social interaction – As neighbors become familiar with the dogs and cats in their neighborhood, owners out walking their pets are likely to run into someone and spark up a conversation. Pets help bridge the gap between people of all ages.
Find the Right Pet for a Senior
Now that we’ve gone over all of the great advantages of owning a pet, it’s important to understand that there are also some drawbacks to pet ownership. Pet care is an extra responsibility for the owner, as pets require a lot of love, attention and of course, walks. But don’t let that steer you away from finding a furry friend of your own. Pet ownership can truly be a highlight of senior living, especially after retirement.
Here are some questions to consider when looking to find the right pet:
Is the senior set in their ways, or stubborn at all?
This one is important, as once you adopt a pet, your whole daily routine will change. If your loved one isn’t fond of change, then they may not be the best candidate for a new pet.
Have they had a pet previously?
Licensed therapist and author of Distress-Free Aging: A Boomer’s Guide to Creating a Fulfilled and Purposeful Life, Amy Sherman, says that it’s always best if the elderly person is already an experienced pet owner. However, if they are open and ready for a new and rewarding commitment, then first-timers can still make great pet owners.
Does the senior have functional limitations or disabilities?
Dr. Donnenfeld says “Dogs can be wonderful companions who encourage a senior to walk and interact with others”. However, dogs may be a challenge for individuals who have limited mobility. If taking a large dog out on a walk would be too tiring, a small dog (as long as it has a quiet temperament) or a lower-maintenance animal such as a cat or a bird would be a preferable choice.
If there are concerns about alzheimer’s disease or dementia, find out if there is nursing staff at the facility, or what other assisted living options may be available before adopting a pet. While animals can be wonderful means of therapy and increase quality of life for dementia patients, the safety of both patient and pet needs to be of primary concern.
Would a therapeutic or emotional support animal be beneficial?
If a person struggles with emotional support or mental disability, they may be a good candidate for one of the specially trained therapy dogs or other therapy animals that are available. These wonderful animals are able to help the disabled to function both at home, and on outings. If, as noted above, it would be unsafe for the senior and/or the pet to be unsupervised, there are visiting animal therapy programs that may be of interest.
What age pet would be best?
A new kitten or puppy may not be an ideal choice for elderly owners, due to the intensive care and training they require. In addition, young pets may outlive their owners. With that in mind, it’s important to think about the life-span of the pet. For example, birds have an especially long life span. On the other hand, elderly dogs may have their own physical limitations, but they are usually well-trained already.
What temperament would be a good fit for the senior?
It is essential to consider and interact with different breeds and with prospective adoptees in order to get a feel for their energy levels and personality. Susan Daffron, author of Happy Hound: Develop a Great Relationship with Your Adopted Dog or Puppy, says “many older people may think they’d do better with a jack russell terrier, because it is a small breed. However, this breed is very, very, very, very high energy and requires a lot of effort and commitment”.
Is the pet healthy?
It is absolutely important for all pets to be examined by a professional prior to adoption. Make sure to obtain the pet’s complete vaccination records. Dr. Katharine Hillestad, a veterinarian based in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, says “You don’t want to compromise an older person’s immune system since some pets carry diseases.” Animals can also contribute to allergies and asthma in some individuals. Unhealthy pets can not only be difficult for seniors to handle, but can also be a burden financially.
One pet or two?
It may be tempting to adopt two pets, so that they can keep each other company. However, this may not be the best, or right, choice for an elderly person. Often times, the two pets will end up bonding close with each other, and not with their owner.
Do finances play a part in the decision?
Contrary to popular belief, having a pet is not without a financial burden. A small puppy can rack up to $800 for food, toys, medical care and grooming (in the first year alone). A low-maintenance animal, like a fish, is less expensive, coming in at around $230 in its first year of life – according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Be absolutely certain the senior can budget for a pet before adopting one.
Is there a backup plan in place for the pet?
As unpleasant as it is to think about, owners must plan for the unexpected for their pets, too. If a senior had to go to the hospital for whatever reason, who would take care of their pet(s)? Since life is very unpredictable, it is important to have a contingency plan in place for all our furry friends.
Remember also that while senior living communities tend to be pet-friendly, assisted living services vary by facility. When senior residents need to move into skilled nursing homes, amenities for pets probably won’t be available.
Pet Friendly Senior Housing
It can feel overwhelming, moving from your longtime family home to a senior living community. However, finding out that you can bring your favorite pet along makes it that much easier! With a little research, you will come to find out that pet-friendly senior housing does exist!
Research shows that 78% of senior living communities are open to their residents bringing a pet with them. Each facility will have its own pet policy, usually including limitations on the size, breed, and number of pets that residents can have. But, these limitations are usually not too strict, and are easy to abide by. You may be required to pay an additional fee, or “pet-rent” per month at these facilities, so it is important to keep that in mind when looking at places to live.
Here are the most important questions to ask a pet-friendly community:
- What is your facility’s pet policy?
- Are the rooms in your unit large enough for a pet?
- How much of a deposit or fee will be required upon move-in with a pet?
- Are there safe places to walk your dog at night? Are these areas well-lit?
- Is there a place for a pet to do its business?
- How accessible are pet amenities (e.g. grooming, vet services etc.)?