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Senior Citizens

with Pets have

an enhanced wellbeing.

Pets For Seniors

You've probably noticed that when you pet a soft, warm cat or
play fetch with a dog whose tail won't stop wagging, you relax
and your heart feels a little warmer. Scientists have noticed the
same thing, and they've started to explore the complex way
animals affect human emotions and physiology. The resulting
studies have shown that owning and handling animals significantly
benefits health, and not just for the young. In fact, pets may
help elderly owners live longer, healthier, and more enjoyable

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics
Society in May of 1999 demonstrated that independently living
seniors that have pets tend to have better physical health and
mental wellbeing than those that don't. They're more active, cope
better with stress, and have better overall health. A 1997 study
showed that elderly pet owners had significantly lower blood
pressure overall than their contemporaries without pets. In fact,
an experimental residential home for the elderly called the Eden
Alternative, which is filled with over 100 birds, dogs, and cats
and has an outside environment with rabbits and chickens, has
experienced a 15 percent lower mortality rate than traditional
nursing homes over the past five years.

How do they do it?

There are a number of explanations for exactly how pets
accomplish all these health benefits. First of all, pets need
walking, feeding, grooming, fresh water, and fresh kitty litter,
and they encourage lots of playing and petting. All of these
activities require some action from owners. Even if it's just
getting up to let a dog out a few times a day or brushing a cat,
any activity can benefit the cardiovascular system and help keep
joints limber and flexible. Consistently performing this kind of
minor exercise can keep pet owners able to carry out the normal
activities of daily living. Pets may also aid seniors simply by
providing some physical contact. Studies have shown that when
people pet animals, their blood pressure, heart rate, and
temperature decrease--see The Health Benefits of Pet Ownership.

Many benefits of pet ownership are less tangible, though. Pets
are an excellent source of companionship, for example. They can
act as a support system for older people who don't have any
family or close friends nearby to act as a support system. The
JAGS study showed that people with pets were better able to
remain emotionally stable during crises than those without. Pets
can also work as a buffer against social isolation. Often the
elderly have trouble leaving home, so they don't have a chance to
see many people. Pets give them a chance to interact. This can
help combat depression, one of the most common medical problems
facing seniors today. The responsibility of caring for an animal
may also give the elderly a sense of purpose, a reason to get up
in the morning. Pets also help seniors stick to regular routines
of getting up in the morning, buying groceries, and going
outside, which help motivate them to eat and sleep regularly and

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Pets in residence

Many nursing homes have taken this information to heart. For
years, organizations like Pets on Wheels and Therapy Dogs
International have been bringing thoroughly vaccinated, groomed,
and behavior-tested animals into hospitals, hospices, and
assisted living homes to give seniors a chance to pet and play
with them. The residents get to have some therapeutic physical
contact and a fun activity to break up their day. More recently,
some resident homes have even begun letting animals live in the
home full time. The Stanton Health Center in Stanton, Nebraska, a
residential nursing home, has had dogs for its Alzheimer wing and
now has an aviary and cats that live in the center's common area.

"The animals help patients keep their mind off their problems,"
says Jean S. Uehl, the center's director of nurses. "The love the
patients get from the animals is unconditional." One particular
stroke patient was withdrawn and rarely smiled, until she began
to play with the resident cat. The patient and the cat became
closely bonded to each other, and when the cat had kittens, "they
became like the patient's babies," according to Uehl. The kittens
played and slept on a tray on the resident's wheelchair and slept
in a chair near her bed whenever they could. The kittens brought
the resident out of her shell and she began to talk and smile.
"The kittens in particular get all the residents' attention,"
says Uehl. "Everyone always wants to know where they're at and
what they're doing." When there are kittens in the building, a
number of residents stay busy all day, following them, playing
with them, and keeping an eye on them.

Finding that furry friend

If there are older people in your life that you think might
benefit from having a pet at home, be sure to talk to them before
you pick one out. Make sure that they want the responsibility of
a new pet, as well as the noise and the messes that may come
along with it. Talk to them about whether they feel capable of
feeding, watering, grooming, exercising, and cleaning up after an
animal. If they decide they're willing to accept that
responsibility, take your elderly friend or family member out
with you to the humane society or the breeder to pick out a new
furry friend. They may fall in love with a dog or cat that might
never have caught your eye.

Finally, before you encourage an older person to adopt a pet,
consider whether you could take care of the animal if its owner
is no longer able. Often, if seniors reach the point where they
have to leave their homes and move into assisted-living
facilities, they also have to give up their pets. The number of
nursing homes and other types of housing for the elderly that
will accept animals is growing, but the vast majority still don't
allow pets. Seniors can plan ahead and find a pet-friendly
nursing facility, just in case they need to use it someday. They
may also want to consider planning for their pet in their
estate-see Leaving Your Pet a Future.

Pets and the elderly have a lot to give to each other. Research
and experience has shown that animals and older people can share
their time and affection, and ultimately, full and happy lives.
Though pets can't replace human relationships for seniors, they
can certainly augment them, and they can fill an older person's
life with years of constant, unconditional love.

Copyright 1996-2002, American Animal Hospital Association

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