Q. I would like to get a new dog, but wonder if it is a good idea at my age. I live alone. What do you think?
You’ve probably noticed that when you pet a soft, warm cat or play fetch with a dog whose tail won’t stop wagging, you relax and your heart feels a little warmer. Studies have shown that owning and handling animals significantly benefits health, and not just for the young. In fact, pets may help older owners live longer, healthier, and more enjoyable lives.
Seniors that have pets tend to have better physical health and mental well-being than those that don’t. They’re more active, cope better with stress and have better overall health than their contemporaries without pets.
There are a number of explanations for exactly how pets accomplish all these health benefits. First of all, pets need walking, feeding, grooming, fresh water and fresh kitty litter, and they encourage lots of playing and petting. All of these activities require some action from owners. Even if it’s just getting up to let a dog out a few times a day, or brushing a cat, any activity can benefit the cardiovascular system and help keep joints limber and flexible. Consistently performing this kind of minor exercise can keep pet owners able to carry out the normal activities of daily living. Pets may also aid seniors simply by providing physical contact.
Many benefits of pet ownership are less tangible, though. Pets are an excellent source of companionship, for example. People with pets were better able to remain emotionally stable during crises than those without. A pet also can work as a buffer against social isolation. This can help combat depression, one of the most common medical problems facing seniors today. The responsibility of caring for an animal may also give a person a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. Pets also help seniors stick to regular routines of getting up in the morning, buying groceries and going outside, which help motivate them to eat and sleep regularly and well.
You do need to consider the responsibility of a new pet, as well as the noise and the messes that may come along with it. Do you feel capable of feeding, watering, grooming, exercising and cleaning up after an animal? It is often a good idea to pick out older pets that may not require as much energy to take care of them. Puppies and kittens can be destructive, and more responsibility than you might want to handle.
Pets and seniors have a lot to give to each other. Research and experience has shown that animals and older people can share their time and affection, and ultimately, full and happy lives. Though pets can’t replace human relationships for seniors, they can certainly augment them, and they can fill an older person’s life with years of constant, unconditional love.
NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor's degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, email it to email@example.com or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, (818) 790-0123, ext. 225.