Senior Citizens

In 2007, David M. Dosa, M.D., M.P.H., a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital, wrote an essay, “A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat,” about a special 2-year-old feline living at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, R.I. 

In many ways, Oscar sounds like the prototypical cat, who wanders the halls, snuggles when he’s feeling affectionate and naps regularly.

But one additional quality makes this animal different than others: He has an uncanny knack for sensing when patients are about to pass away, jumping onto their hospital beds and cuddling with them as they take their last breaths. Oscar was even awarded a plaque for his invaluable “hospice” work.

Why Pets Are So Important

While Oscar provides daily companionship, as well as astonishing end-of-life comfort at his Rhode Island hospital, most pets who live or visit independent or assisted senior living facilities also play important roles in their communities.

Interacting with animals, explains Alan M. Beck, Sc.D., the director for the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, offers a wide range of advantages for people of all ages. Beck notes that these benefits include "increased focus, humor, exercise and thinking out loud because you can talk to animals without people thinking you’re crazy.”

Beck’s background reads a bit like a history on the subject: After several stints at places like John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — he studied the ecology of stray dogs in Baltimore with an NIH grant while there — and the New York Health Department to run their animal program, Beck absconded to the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school, which had just received a first-ever grant to study human-animal interactions at the time. 

“The idea of actually studying what happens between animals and people was a new idea,” he explains. “At least half of the veterinary schools in North America now have programs, centers or units that look at what’s going on with humans and animals together." Today, even the AARP recommends dog ownership as a primary way to stay healthy if you’re an older individual.

How Exactly Do We Benefit From Furry Friends As We Age?

According to Beck, when it comes to the effects of animal-human interaction, the older community has been the most studied because they tend to be isolated, with fewer friends and a less-enriched environment. 

“Pet ownership can help lower blood pressure, decrease the number of visits to a physician, reduce depression, increase heart attack survival and decrease loneliness,” noted a white paper from a PAWsitive InterAction summit in 2003. In a study of 100 Medicare patients, even the most highly stressed dog owners reported 21 percent fewer physician visits than nondog owners.

While most nursing homes have some kind of animal visitation program in place, Beck would like to see more facilities allowing humans to have pets, especially given that not wanting to leave treasured animals behind is a big reason why some people stay in their homes instead of getting the care they need.

The good news is that the number of senior living facilities that allow pets is growing. According to the Associated Press, hundreds of retirement communities nationwide now permit residents to keep pets, and there’s increasing demand: “As many as 40 percent of people ask about pets when calling A Place for Mom, the nation’s largest senior living referral service, said Tami Cumings, its senior vice president.”

What’s the Best Kind of Pet?

The right animal may depend on a patient’s health issues.

For example, Beck studied the use of fish tanks with Alzheimer’s patients, who frequently experience weight loss because they’re either too agitated or lethargic to eat. He found that a “desire to appreciate nature transcends dementia.” Apparently, watching the fish tank was a stress reliever, and also allowed patients to observe and focus, so they ate more and gained weight in just one month.

Birds can also help treat loneliness and manage depression. “Birds hold your attention and keep you in the present without being frightening,” asserts Beck. “Every time that you watch [them], it’s different and often funny. This plays on our intuitive care for nature too.” From a social standpoint, people feel less pressure to make constant conversation with a bird in front of them, so it can make a situation more comfortable.

Of course, dogs also provide plenty of social lubrication, but even more significantly, pups motivate older people to get outside and take walks, boosting overall health and fitness. Middle-age dogs of medium size — they don’t have to be lifted, but also won’t knock anyone over — are recommended most for seniors.

Felines are equally popular pets for older people — they don’t require as much maintenance, and they often love to cuddle. They also can give their human companions a sense of purpose. 

“Cats trigger a response [in seniors] that’s similar to [how they’d react to] human infants, which lends itself to super nurturing,” explains Beck. “In terms of mascots, the cat is probably the most common.”

Oscar would likely agree.