By Pat Irwin
The benefits for older adults of spending time with a pet are well documented. Pet attachment is linked to strengthened emotional health, reduced depression and lower psychological distress. Seniors with dogs, for instance, go to the doctor less and report fewer illnesses. Dog walking provides them with exercise and positive social interaction, and encourages playfulness. Even the snootiest of cats will allow their owners to play with them—when it suites them! Pets also satisfy the human need for touch, and provide non-judgmental affection.
Pets can be a support system when no family or friends are nearby. They often help their owners remain emotionally stable during times of stress or crisis. It could be said that, together, they help each other survive. Many seniors will choose to adopt an older “rescue” pet and say, “I’m not sure who rescued who.”
That’s an impressive list of benefits! But what happens when living circumstances change?
Living with diabetes had always made Judy feel like an outsider, but her little dog Boris had given her a reason to get up every day, socialize with others and get to know her neighbours. As her disease progressed, Judy knew she needed to move into a retirement community, but she was wary of cliques and not being accepted. She was so happy when she learned that Boris could move in, too—here was her sure-fire icebreaker and conversation starter! Then tragedy struck. Boris was diagnosed with a serious kidney disease and to spare her pal any more pain, Judy made the heartbreaking decision to have him put down. Without her little mascot, Judy was lost, stayed in her apartment, stopped eating, and began refusing visits and medical attention.
All this just because of a dog? Take note: Boris was much more than a dog for Judy. He was actually an essential part of her coping strategy that allowed her to make transitions in her life. Boris provided companionship, imposed a welcome routine, inspired Judy to exercise and gave her the unconditional love that she was so worried she’d never receive. Fellow retirement home residents would have accepted Judy with or without her dog—but she wasn’t ready or willing to go that route.
Agnes went to the store one morning. Unfortunately, she fell in the parking lot and was sent to hospital with a broken hip. A nosey neighbour, whom Agnes had never liked, cared enough to arrange with Agnes’ out-of-town family to take her dog to the safety of a boarding kennel. However, Agnes worried excessively about Goldie, her German shepherd, working herself into near hysteria at the thought of having to “put the dog down.” After all, how she would ever regain enough mobility to manage a big dog like her beloved Goldie?
Goldie gave Agnes someone to care for and care about. Having Goldie meant investing in another life, a commitment to the future, and a focus on something other than her physical problems and fears about growing old. Losing Goldie came to represent losing control of her own life and facing the future alone.
The hospital social worker contacted Goldie’s veterinarian, who went to visit Agnes when she returned home. The veterinarian told her that Goldie was doing well at the kennel, and reviewed the dog’s daily routine and exercise needs. At age eight, Goldie was a passive, gentle dog who required only three short walks a day; other visits out the back door could be managed by Agnes on her rollator. The vet suggested that his dog walker, who had been walking Goldie at the boarding kennel, would be willing to carry on when Agnes returned home. Masterfully, the promise of a new regimen of visits, dog walks and cups of tea became the focus of Agnes’s day and greatly assisted in her stress-free recovery.
Eric was a reclusive single man. His cat, Tootsie, was his “family” and, with a bit of negotiating, the pair successfully moved into a retirement community together. Seven years later, Eric suffered a stroke and died. While his suite was being cleared out, Tootsie bolted. A week later she reappeared in the lobby but, of course, Eric was gone. What to do?
The receptionist, a cat lover, had the idea of “donating” Tootsie, who was really no trouble, to the dementia residents’ wing. A bed, scratching post and toys were placed in the common area, and Tootsie eventually became bolder and more friendly. Residents would be pleasantly surprised when Tootsie jumped into their lap for a visit. She seemed to know who was lonely and needed comfort that day. Even the most reclusive residents started to keep their doors open in case the cat wanted to visit, and they shared cat treats from a bowl at the nurses’ station.
When Tootsie’s kittens were born, a result of her short “vacation” after Eric passed, it was as if the residents had been electrified! Playing with the kittens, naming them, making them toys, finding them homes among their families and staff and even changing the litter box became a focus. Nothing was too much trouble.
Best of friends
Pets exist in the here and now. They don’t worry about a tomorrow that might be frightening for dementia patients or worrisome for a person living with cancer. Animals soothe and centre people, and bring them a sense of peace. Their non-verbal communication can also be easily understood and appreciated by people who are no longer able to speak.
Animals can evoke long-term memories. Talking about this pet or that one can bring back your childhood memories, and they can stimulate discussion, memory retention and positive associations in times of need.
Judy, Agnes and Eric all show how pets are part of our lives, and can remain an active partner throughout life’s transitions.
Pat Irwin, BA, AICB, CPCA, is President of ElderCareCanada.