Benefits of Companion Pets for Seniors
Companionship is important for seniors. As their children and grandchildren grow and their friends spend more time with their own families, it is crucial for our loved ones to feel important, cared for, and appreciated. Unfortunately for many, spending time with the seniors can be difficult. Effectively communicating how loved and appreciated older people are, especially to those with dementia or other ailments of the mind, continues to get harder as people age. In an attempt to remedy this divide, many studies have been conducted to track the usefulness of companion pets for the aging. Since the 1980s, researchers have sought to understand the benefits for seniors in human-animal relationships to figure out if, as they thought, pets were a useful part in the lives of their owners. Anthropologists have found evidence suggesting humans have lived in harmony with cats and dogs for upwards of 14,000 years, so there must be benefits for this continued companionship. The following will discuss the context and findings for research on companion animals.
The term “companion animal” comes from the research of both veterinary and welfare professionals and is defined as “the mutuality of the human-animal relationship.” In layman’s terms, this means that most professionals hope to find that the relationship benefits both parties, human and animal. Studies have encompassed the overall health of both pet owners and non pet owners as a control group, and included seniors living both independently and in assisted living facilities. Seniors both with and without demential and other psychiatric ailments were studied as well. Studies focused on traditional household pets ranging from dogs and cats to rabbits, small rodents, birds, and fish, although dogs were the most commonly studied companion animal. While many studies focused on the benefits for older people, some were done specifically to make sure the welfare of the animals was being taken into consideration when putting them into the care of seniors (animals receiving veterinary care on time, being properly fed and cleaned up after, etc.).
In all studies observed concerning this article, the existence of companion pets was positively interpreted by researchers for both the animals and the seniors. Physical health was drastically improved in pet owning versus non-pet owning older people. Pet owners had lower blood pressure and cholesterol, were more likely to reach the recommended level of activity for their age group, had higher levels of independence in daily tasks for a longer time, required fewer nutritional supplements, and reported better overall health than their non-pet owning counterparts. Mental wellbeing with companion animals has been researched as well. In studying those with dementia and other psychiatric ailments, patients’ daily living skills, cognitive skills, and social contact all increased while their behavioral problems decreased when companion animals were introduced. Emotionally, seniors with access to companion animals regularly report lower levels of loneliness and higher levels of self-esteem. Additionally, those with depression had lessened anxiety and fewer depressive symptoms were observed and reported by the patients. Companion pets were also seen as highly beneficial during periods of bereavement; researchers noticed an increase in human-animal bonding after patients lost a spouse. For the animals, most independent older people had no problem caring for their companions. In assisted living situations, much of the care for the animals fell to the providers which took care of the seniors. Typically when this happened, there were already programs in place which allowed animals in the facility, so it did not negatively or positively impact the care the seniors received. Note that all studies have been modeled multiple times and not all studies reported the same positive findings in every reiteration.
Having a companion is something most humans want and need throughout their lives. To feel appreciated and needed ties into our very nature as social creatures. While humans are thankfully living longer and longer, society is facing unprecedented problems on how to include the older generations which, historically, have not been around. Companion animals may be a great step toward keeping older people physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger as they age.