Marilyn is a more than vigorous 80-plus. She teaches a history class for seniors, exercises regularly, takes writing courses and has a manuscript ready for submission, is an active member of a local women’s group and a new resident of a retirement community near her former home.
She also has a dog, one that requires regular walking several times a day, rain, snow, and shine, night and day. When her beloved German Shepherd died, she looked for another German Shepherd, one that would intimidate unwanted callers at her front door. After much urging from friends and family, she finally settled on a smaller dog, a Sheltie, an older dog who needed a home as much as Marilyn needed her.
The dog has become her faithful companion, one that keeps her from being lonely, stressed or otherwise anxious. Caring for and walking the dog also gives her much needed exercise and has introduced her to the other few residents who have dogs.
Maybe Marilyn didn’t need her new canine friend to get her out and about, but other seniors might. Several research efforts and countless anecdotal accounts demonstrate that pets — dogs, cats, birds, even fish — enrich the lives of seniors, both physically and emotionally by giving focus and purpose to their lives.
The “Eden Alternative”
Dr. Bill Thomas’s “Eden Alternative” may be the most well-known and well-documented example of the positive role that animals, plants and even children can play in enriching the lives of senior citizens.
In 1991, Dr. Thomas, then an exhausted emergency room physician, took a position as medical director of a nursing home in upstate New York. He found the place depressing, the residents’ lethargic and dispirited old people. Dr. Thomas decided to shake things up a bit and try to put some life back into the place, so he had the staff purchase two dogs, four cats, 100 parakeets (enough for every patient), rabbits and chickens, plants for all the rooms, and then plant a garden, both vegetables and flowers, and start a day care center for staff member’s children.
The results were dramatic. Patients began dressing themselves and getting out of their rooms. They ate better. Their use of medications, especially anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, dropped, and the death rate dropped by half when compared with a similar nursing home. Dr. Thomas wanted the facility to be more like a home with a garden than a hospital.
He called the experiment “The Eden Alternative” and received numerous awards. Some nursing homes in this country, and some in Europe, Japan and Australia picked up on the idea. But, as Dr. Thomas and others have discovered, the status quo is hard to change. Despite the proven benefits of the Eden Alternative, many nursing homes retain the hospital model.
The Value of Living Things
But that doesn’t mean that individual seniors and their caregivers can’t learn from the experiment by surrounding themselves with living things. Caring for animals of any kind, and even for plants, demands commitment and caring, and interactions with others of all generations, young children to the very old, enriches the lives of all those involved.
Too, though hard to document and quantify in a controlled scientific study, the benefits of pet ownership provide physical and mental health benefits for older adults. Among the most important is companionship, and the unconditional love that goes with it, which counters loneliness, boredom and depression.
Pets also provide a sense of purpose for seniors. Pets need to be cared for, fed, groomed, even taken to the vet as needed. Dogs need to be walked, and that provides beneficial exercise for both senior and pet and, since dog walkers routinely meet other dog walkers, socialization is another plus.
Research studies also suggest that taking care of a pet relieves stress, helps control blood pressure and lowers the risk of heart disease. Why is not entirely clear, but one explanation could be that caring for a living being not only gives purpose to life, but also promotes the release of oxytocin, a brain chemical that regulates social behavior, and lowers the release of cortisol, the stress related “flight or fight” hormone.
Caring for a dog provides much needed exercise for seniors. At least two studies reinforce the value of dog walking. One, a study at Michigan State, showed that people who owned and walked their dogs were 34% more likely to meet the recommended total of 150 minutes of exercise (or in this case walking) a week, while a National Institutes of Health study of 421 people who had suffered heart attacks found that dog owners — and presumably dog walkers — were more likely to be alive one year later.
A Few Downsides
Of course, pet ownership does have some downsides. As Marilyn’s friends warned when she wanted another German Shepherd, size can be a problem. An exuberant large dog can easily knock down a fragile senior who may have balance problems anyway. An energetic puppy can cause similar problems. Dogs and cats running around under foot may trip a senior who may not be paying attention to every quick move. And if a dog is too big or too heavy for a senior to get into a car, transporting to a vet can be a problem.
A senior also needs to be physically and mentally able to care for a pet (and this includes fish and plants, too) — remembering when to feed and water, able to clean up such things as a cat litter box or changing the water for the fish, even cutting back or repotting plants if needed.
Cost can also be a drawback. Animals need to be fed and, as is true with humans, the quality of their health is linked to the quality of their food. Animals, especially as they age, need medical care, such as flea, tick and heartworm prevention, for instance. Some also require training and grooming. Estimates for the cost of the care and feeding of a pet for a year vary considerably, but range from $500 to $1,600 and up – more if an animal has serious health problems. Vets, like physicians, can be expensive, but unlike for older humans, Medicare doesn’t cover any of the costs of pet care — even though a healthy pet may ultimately reduce the health care costs of the owner.