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L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Certified Gerontologist

How Pets Keep Seniors Healthy

February 18, 2019

Full disclaimer here: I am in love with my Havanese puppy, George Eliot, as I hope many of you see each week in my Facebook posts or here on my website. This post is just the tiniest bit biased toward having, or adding, a pet in your life.

In the United States, more than one third, 37% in fact, of folks fifty to sixty-seven, and 29% of older adults sixty-eight and older, are lucky enough to have a pet in their lives. Solid research published in the last few decades reveals the benefits of seniors owning a pet or having regular interaction with an animal. Those who have pets are physically and mentally healthier, have more independence, and have stronger and broader social connections, all contributors to keeping us vibrant as we get older. Pets may even reduce some symptoms of dementia.

Recently, I am proud to say, we gerontologists–experts in aging, who offer lifestyle and behavioral changes to optimize older adults’ physical, mental, and psychological health and quality of life– are again on the forefront. We are discovering what helps us flourish at every age with a study analyzing the best research in the field about pets and seniors.

In 1980, Dr. Erika Freidmann published the first results of groundbreaking research on the health benefits of pets. In this study, Dr. Friedmann found that pet ownership made a significant difference in the survival rate of those who had suffered a heart attack — 94% of the heart patients with a fur baby at home survived serious heart attacks for at least a year, compared to 72% of those who had no animal pal. Later studies added to the heart healthy benefits of having a pet, finding those with pets had better cardiovascular health and reduced hypertension. The American Heart Association — the United States’ oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke — says that pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is associated with decreased cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk, and having a dog likely plays a role in reducing CVD risk, over all. Well, yippee for Fido! Personally, I think it’s because we open our hearts to our pets and their love for us heals our hearts in return.

An added perk of being a human parent to a pet? Some studies of pet owners have found even more health benefits linked to Fluffy’s presence in the house– a boost to her mom’s and dad’s immune systems and a stronger resistance to disease. Our stress levels are lower than those without a pet. In a study of doctors’ visits among Medicare recipients in California, even those who experienced multiple negative life events such as the death of a spouse or friend had no increase in the number of doctors’ visits compared to those who didn’t share their homes with a furry friend. In the study, dog owners had the greatest resistance to illness and disease.

Additionally, we who share our home with a pet also tend to require fewer visits to primary care providers, which may also be due to better overall health that loving a pet offers us humans. Folks who own a dog benefit even more from an increased moderate level of physical activity through daily walks and time spent outdoors playing with their canine companion.

Pets increase our sense of well-being and boost our psychological health. Walking Spot becomes for many seniors a way to interact with neighbors and the community around them.

Pet owners strengthen their social connections by meeting new friends—both furry and human– and bonding with fellow dog lovers. Dog are a great “ice breaker” and dog owners are five times more likely to get to know their neighbors than owners of other types of pets, and twice as likely to forge friendships with people they meet through their pet. Daily walks also helps seniors stay familiar with their surroundings and helps them feel safe.

Having a pet alleviates depression in people of all ages, a fact now well established by research. For much older seniors, or those with mobility issues and limited contact outside their home, those with pets show less depression and more resilience against everyday challenges. Animals provide older adults with structure and give them a sense of purpose—a reason to get up in the morning, get dressed, and attend to the needs of their four-legged companion. Often, if the seniors were parents, those instincts come online again and subtly ignite the pet owners to be present and on alert because of the charge in their care. Loving a pet can have positive effects on the humans’ well-being and help keep them engaged. For women, and those living alone, our pets make us feel safe at home and when we venture outside. Having a pet, the research tells us, can be a deciding factor in helping older adults remain in a home setting as they get older.

Even if you can’t take on the full responsibility of owning a pet, there are ways to interact and gain benefits from being around animals. Volunteer at a pet shelter or pet care facility, offer to pet sit, or foster a pet for brief periods. Decide what works best for you, and either zoom down to the local shelter and give a fur ball a forever home, or offer to volunteer! Just by being near and interacting with an animal, we absorb their loving energy and good vibes, which makes us better people, and the health benefits? An added perk ????

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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