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Study after study has shown the benefits of pet ownership for seniors: Pets help reduce stress, lift depression, boost self-esteem, increase exercise —the list goes on. But according to elder care expert Barbara McVicker, who launched the PBS special Stuck in the Middle: Caring for Mom and Dad, perhaps the most important benefit is that pets provide companionship. “Loneliness and isolation have such a profound effect on the elderly. They can go days or weeks without touching another human being, without talking to anyone else,” she says.
Pets can help with that. “They give the other kinds of feedback you want: somebody that’s excited when you get up in the morning, some entity to talk to, keep you warm, watch TV with you," says McVickers. In fact, when writer Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to determine the lifestyle factors linked to longevity, one key indicator was having a reason to get up in the morning," And pets definitely provide that. After all, they generally wake up hungry or in need of a walk or a cuddle — and they’re not shy about “requesting” their owners' attention to these matters.
What’s more, says Mary Craig, DVM, “Animals live in the moment, letting go of the past and not worrying about the future. This can be a powerful state of being for seniors, or any of us, to share.”
Dr. Craig's company, Gentle Goodbye Veterinary Hospice & At-Home Euthanasia, provides end-of-life care for animals, which means she is often in people's homes and sees firsthand the benefits —and challenges—of pet ownership. “As people get older, their ability to care for pets can decline," Dr. Craig says. "The benefit of animals in our lives is negated if it threatens the health of the person or the well-being of the animal.”
Fortunately, there are strategies to help seniors avoid potential problems that can arise.
When getting a new pet for an elderly person, a cat or small dog may be a better choice than a big, rambunctious Labrador, Dr. Craig says. “As mobility is reduced, managing a larger dog or getting up to let any dog out gets more difficult.” Plus, an excited puppy on a leash can pull, leading to a fall. And big dogs can be difficult to restrain or control. Another option Dr. Craig suggests: adopting a mature pet, one who is a few years old, which can mean the rambunctious stages are avoided and training can be minimized.
But you don’t want a pet who is too old, McVicker says. The reason? “Any form of loss is so hard on the elderly. Their lives have become so much of a microcosm that they don’t have the distractions or other coping mechanisms that younger people might have: kids to take care of, a full calendar, a busy life. Their lives are so small by that time that the pet takes up a huge part of what goes on in the daily routine.” That means the loss of a pet can hit especially hard.
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