It is easy to understand how spending time with a gentle, friendly pet can be a soothing and enjoyable experience for any person, particularly for the elderly. But science has determined that the affect is more than just enjoyment, the interaction can be therapeutic and life-changing, providing both physical and mental health benefits and improved quality of life for the elderly.
The short and long of it
The most encouraging aspect of pet therapy is that the health benefits can be felt immediately. As little as 15 minutes spent connecting with a pet can increase the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin, initiating immediate short-term improvements including reduced heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels. Over the long-term, pet and human bonding can lower cholesterol levels, fight depression and possibly help protect against more serious ailments such as heart disease and stroke. According to PAWS for People, the largest pet therapy organization in the Mid-Atlantic region, pet therapy can provide these additional benefits:
For physical health:
- improves cardiovascular health
- releases endorphins (oxytocin) that have a calming effect
- diminishes overall physical pain
- the act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, reducing the amount of medication some folks need
For mental health
- decreases feelings of isolation and alienation
- encourages communication
- provides comfort
- increases socialization and sense of community
- reduces boredom
- decreases anxiety
- reduces loneliness
Quality of life, improved
Beyond the numerous health benefits an animal can have on the life of a senior, the companionship a pet provides can also enrich their quality of life. For those who are moderately active, walking a dog provides great exercise and connection to the world around them. The other acts of caring for a pet—feeding, grooming, brushing, petting and playing can be rewarding for seniors in multiple ways. These mild activities can help the elderly build confidence and increase their sense of purpose.
Pets offer gratifying stimulation and engagement that can brighten the day of a senior. The unconditional love and companionship a pet offers is a unique emotional bond like no other and can provide a deeper sense of happiness.
Fortunately, pet friendly assisted living communities, and pet therapy services in nursing homes and retirement communities are on the rise. These arrangements can provide the positive benefits of pet therapy to aging seniors while ensuring the pet is properly cared for by a staff member if the senior is incapable. And for those seniors who have the physical and cognitive ability to care for a pet from their home, adopting a furry friend could be a rewarding (and healthy!) experience.
To find pet friendly activities contact your local senior and community centers, pet adoption agencies or shelters.