There has been a lot written lately about pet therapy and the benefits of pets for seniors. The companionship and sense of purpose pet ownership brings can really improve someone's quality of life. Surprisingly though, the best, low-maintenance pets for seniors are not necessarily the traditional choices that first come to mind. From an elder care perspective, here are some pros, cons, options, and alternatives to consider.
Benefits for senior citizens
The National Poll on Healthy Aging sponsored by AARP and the University of Michigan found a number of health and wellness benefits for seniors with pets. Pets can help seniors:
- Enjoy life
- Feel unconditional love
- Beat depression
- Have a sense of purpose
- Get valuable exercise, which reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and promotes a healthier heart
- Experience companionship
- Socialize more with others
A recent Forbes Magazine article entitled Pets Are Critical for Older Adults cites that 62 percent of adults over 65 have dogs, 55 percent have cats, and 10 percent have birds, fish, turtles, and other small mammals as pets. What’s more, seniors living alone report the most benefit from their animal companions when coping with loss.
The challenges of pet ownership
For all its benefits, owning a pet is also a responsibility. While people often romanticize the idea of owning an adorable puppy, rescuing an animal, or getting healthy exercise, there are realistic concerns one (especially first timers) should take into consideration before diving into pet ownership later in life:
- You'll want a low-maintenance pet. When thinking about the amount of effort you have to give a pet, consider that older pets may require less training and work than a puppy or a traumatized rescue animal, and a cat or bird may be a better alternative to a dog.
- Research is key. Even among the same species of animal, a pet can have drastically different temperaments and care needs depending on their age, breed, and gender. Do your research and consider the energy level and personality of your pet of choice. One source of online information is The Best Dogs For Seniors That Are Low Maintenance and Full of Love.
- There are so many ways to find a pet. It may seem overwhelming with the pet stores, breeders, and shelters, but it's just a bit more research. That choice will really be informed by what kind of pet you want, whether you want to buy or adopt, and the age range of your ideal senior companion. We recommend starting with a place like Petfinder.com, a directory of 11,000 animal shelters and adoption organizations.
- Housing restrictions. Some places like apartment buildings or senior living facilities may have rules against pets. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the regulations where you live.
- The physical limitations of the owner. Will you be able to carry out the responsibilities of care such as grooming, bathing, brushing teeth, trimming nails, feeding, watering, walking, cleaning the litter box (or other habitat), and taking your pet to regular and emergency veterinary appointments?
- It's not cheap! Make sure to factor in the expenses of food, supplies, and health care for the pet.
There’s a lot to think about, and careful planning can make all the difference. Consider, for example, who will care for the pet when you are sick or hospitalized, or if you pass away. If you leave your home for a residential community, will they allow you to bring your pet with you?
Alternative options for senior companionship
Robotic pets: Yes, seriously, this is a worthwhile consideration. Robotic dogs and cats are becoming remarkably realistic and lifelike. They feel, look, and sound like a lap dog or cat, and they are programmed to interact and respond to your voice, petting, hugging, and motion much like real animals. Pilot studies are showing that most seniors report a decrease in feelings of social isolation and loneliness with the companionship of a robotic pet. Pet therapy benefits with no obligations!
Borrow a pet: Maybe the best solution is not owning a pet at all, but visiting your family’s pet instead, or applying for home visits from a pet therapy organization such as TDL Therapy Dogs International. These are ways a senior could satisfy their desire for a pet companion without the daily responsibility.
Surely the pleasures and joys of animal companions later in life cannot be underestimated. As seniors’ lives start to feel smaller over time, pets can offer tremendous health and well-being benefits, both physically and mentally. But it’s not all fun and games; owning a pet carries many responsibilities that can turn into stressors as one ages and loses physical, mental, even financial capacities. So, it is smart to be thoughtful and safe, and to have a realistic approach to your ability to manage them.
Pets and home care services
At BAYADA, our personal care services at home strive to match every client with their most compatible caregivers. A common request is for an aide who loves animals or a specific kind of pet. If this matters to you, discuss this important consideration when you begin conversations with your local service office, so we may find the perfect match for you.