Taking a look at how pets can offer health benefits to their aging owners
Pet ownership is common amongst families of all types, so have we ever stopped to ask the question: why? Yes, we love our furry friends, but there are underlying scientific reasons why humans have taken care of pets all this time. Pets actually offer many benefits to their owners.
Research has been done on the healing benefits of pet ownership, especially in senior citizens. In partnership with the University of Missouri, ReCHAI actually studies animal and human interaction. The research found has influenced the implementation of animal therapy programs, service dogs for numerous medical conditions, and encouraged seniors to spend more time with four-legged companions.
When thinking about why pets improve our daily lives, social life is easily at the top of the list. Our pets are our companions. Of course, we play with them within the role of good pet owners, but many people also talk to their pets. Time spent with pets has even been shown to improve communication in dementia patients when human interaction has failed.
While having an animal to talk to and play with can ease loneliness, many seniors find that having an animal, especially a dog, helps with their social lives outside of the home as well. Having a sense of purpose improves confidence, which encourages seniors to be more outgoing. Walking the dog allows seniors to meet other people while they are out and expands their social interactions. Pet owners love to swap stories, which makes pets great conversation starters as well. They are truly social matchmakers for their owners.
Looking beyond the social benefits of pet ownership, the actual health benefits of pets are truly astounding. The hormonal response pets trigger can help with mental and physical ailments. Studies have shown pet owners have decreased anxiety, stress levels, and pain due to the release of oxytocin from an animal interaction. This hormonal release is what creates the bond between animal and human, but it turns out that it is a key element in an animal’s health benefits as well.
There is research that shows that pet ownership can lower the risk of certain types of cancer, hasten the healing process after heart attacks, and reduce the number of doctor visits during the year. The CDC confirms that animals can also lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels (which reduce the risk of heart disease).
Part of the reason dogs are so good for heart health is the increased opportunity for exercise. Many seniors find that they exercise more as dog owners because they feel the responsibility to take care of their dog. Dogs are great motivators because they are always in the mood for a walk — whether rain or shine!
A major concern for seniors and their families as they age is safety, especially if seniors are living alone. Dogs are great to have around to make their owners feel safe at home. As hearing degenerates, dogs are able to warn aging owners of unwelcome prowlers. They also can be trained to help accurately detect cancer or dangerous changes in sugar levels for diabetics. Whether guarding the home or keeping a nose on physical ailments, owning a dog can prove to be a lifesaver.
Live in the moment
An often overlooked but supremely true reason we love to keep our pet pals around is that they live in the moment. They shake off a setback, land on four legs, and don’t worry about the future. This is a rewarding energy to be around at any age, but this can be especially welcome for seniors as they often deal with a range of frustrations like aging or fears about the future. Animals are a charming and present reminder that life is happening right now. Even the briefest flashes of something shiny or the smallest treat can be a source of fascination and gratitude.
Risk vs Reward
As with all things in life, the debate of whether an animal is a right choice for you has validity on both sides. However, the benefits are many for human and animal interaction. If you decide a pet is right for you, there are some considerations to take to ensure a mutually-beneficial relationship.
As a senior and new pet owner, consider adopting an older animal. Not only do they require less mobility, but they also struggle to find welcoming homes as younger families want to raise young animals. Your pet will match your energy level and be infinitely grateful for a loving home.
If you don’t want a pet in your home but still want the companionship, there are additional options! Ask about local pet therapy programs or volunteer at a local shelter. You will get all the feel-good feelings of spending time with animals as well as the warm, fuzzy reward of doing a good deed. After all, nothing beats the warm affection of an animal friend.