How Pets Can Benefit Senior Health

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Perhaps you always had pets as a kid but haven’t for years. Or maybe your cat or dog died a while ago and you haven’t sought out another pet. If you don’t have a pet as an older adult, you have many good reasons to consider one.

Physician Az Tahir, who practices holistic integrative medicine at Internal Medicine Internal Care in Henrietta, said that pet ownership can prolong healthy longevity.

“Particularly, the dog gets people out walking,” Tahir said. “They keep you busy and physically active.”

But lower-energy dogs and cats can also increase activity and maintain range of movement. Think of the work of feeding, watering, grooming and cleaning up after a pet.

“It brings the stress levels down and blood pressure, too,” Tahir said. “They can help reduce the risk heart attack and stroke and cancer.”

Animals need a gentle touch and a patient approach, so a petting session requires owners to slow down and remain calm.

Pets also increase social interaction, from dog walking, to vet visits to shopping for pet food. Simply having something to talk about — “Do you know what Muffin did yesterday?”— can make conversation more interesting.

For those living alone, a pet can offer someone to talk to and look forward to.

“The fact that they are part of a daily routine, it helps,” Tahir said. “The effect on the psyche are profound. This brings them comfort and company.”

St. Ann’s Home in Rochester has tapped into the power of pets to benefit their senior residents.

Mark Simpelaar, St. Ann’s recreational therapist/life enrichment advocate, said that the presence of pets “provides [seniors] with reassurance and they have less loneliness. It’s something to take care of. It’s something to look forward to every day and something to love.”

Some residents who have dementia sometimes experience agitation. Simpelaar said that pet therapy can help provide diversion and comfort for people who like animals. Instead of aimlessly walking, some take a break to sit and enjoy petting the animals.

St. Ann’s also encourages visits from volunteers with dogs and family members who want to bring in pets.

“Some residents really respond,” Simpelaar said. “It changes their whole facial expression.”

Non-therapy animals are permitted if their owners have pre-registered and receive a Pet Card.

“It improves contentment, relaxation and mood,” Simpelaar said. “It’s an emotionally nice, positive thing that helps people.”

Of course, not everyone loves animals. For those who enjoy the company of pets, “it’s really important, because it gives people a purpose.”

Though at St. Ann’s staff take care of any resident pet (the home has kept cats and birds), independent adults can feel a sense of responsibility that they need. Simpelaar said that his father dwells in an assisted living community, but is able to keep a dog.

“It keeps him active and social,” Simpelaar said.

He said that his father isn’t very outgoing, but the dog is, so that helps him interact with more people.

“A pet can give some people a reason to live, if the animal is that close to the person,” Simpelaar said.

It’s inadvisable to surprise anyone with a pet as a gift. Older adults may have additional considerations, including the physical and financial ability to care for a pet. For the former, some assistance and accommodation can enable keeping a pet. A helper can aid in dog walking or changing cat litter, or instance. Installing a dog run can reduce the need for dog walking. Placing a covered litter box on a flat-topped kitty condo could make scooping litter easier.

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