Elderly and pets
How many elderly people do you know who have a pet?
Are you a senior?
How many elderly people do you know?
Elderly people, in general, can be at risk of social isolation. They are no longer employed, many friends have died, they may have financial considerations and their health may restrict their activities. Feelings of loneliness grow stronger as people age and there is no doubt that pet ownership can provide much-needed companionship for elderly people
Elderly pet owners themselves actually state companionship as the most important criterion in pet ownership, as it is in other groups of people. Plans for the day or even the week centre on rituals with their pets. For some elderly people, their pets are their only friends.
The presence of a pet may help alleviate any loneliness by providing contact with others. Dog-walking owners speak regularly to passers-by about their dogs and also speak directly to their dogs. Cats and other pets provide a topic of conversation.
It is not only companionship that pets can help provide. Retiring from work can leave elderly people with the absence of a role in life. Here, pets can provide the role, motivating the elderly person to keep a routine or simply get up in the morning. People are never too old to play with their pets and the majority of older people do so regularly.
Other benefits of pet ownership in the elderly
The benefit of a good relationship with a pet can benefit more people than just the elderly owner themselves. Other people often consider pet owners to be happier than non-owners and one group of elderly pet owning women was found to have a closer relationship with their husbands than the non-owners. Even rating themselves, elderly pet owners considered themselves more nurturing, independent and optimistic in comparison to non-pet owners. Men who were not pet owners were considered more arrogant and hostile than pet owners and women in general.
In general, pet owners experience improved levels of health and well being. It has been suggested, however, that elderly pet owners may not visit their doctor for fear of being rehomed without their pet, due to disability or instability. Owning a pet can also influence the choice of housing for an elderly person. Giving up their pet due to frailty or inability to look after it may cause significant grief in elderly people and they should be given special consideration when this happens.
Iterestingly,whilst the Australian population of pet owners as a whole may visit the doctor less, elderly owners do not differ from non-owners in their use of health services. Similarly, pet ownership did not affect psychological well-being. It may be that the health benefits of companion animals do not extend to the elderly. Alternatively, it may not be current pet ownership that impacts on the health of the elderly but previous ownership. As always, it is difficult to determine the factors that contribute to the well-being observed in pet owners.
What is evident from various studies, is that elderly people are less likely to keep pets than the rest of the population with only 28% of elderly Australians being pet owners. Over 60% of the general population live with pets.
Choice of suitable pet is important for an elderly person. Many breeds of dogs, large or active ones may not be suitable. Smaller, less active breeds, cats or birds may be a better alternative.
Not every elderly person wants to own a pet, even those who were previous pet owners. This decision should be respected and no older person should have to take care of an unwanted gift. Some older people, who do not wish to own a pet, may still desire some contact with animals. Neighbourhood pets and friends and family can oblige here.
Many elderly people would, however, like to own a pet but sadly the absence of suitable support in the form of daily care, suitable housing or finance is absent. Due to the companionship and social benefits that a pet provides, the elderly may benefit most. Having a companion animal gives them a chance to nurture once more.
For many elderly people there is the worry of what would happen to their pet if they should die first. When questioned about any arrangements should they predecease their pet, around half of those questioned had plans which usually included family members, friends or spouse, if present, keeping the pet. Those people with low incomes were more likely to have made plans for their pet. Less than 2%, however, intended to provide money for the maintenance of their pet. Some owners will provide an income for their pet to live out the natural term of its life in a welfare establishment.
As with other groups of pet owners, death of a beloved pet can leave an elderly person grief stricken and this is complicated by the fact that they are aware that they may never own another pet in their lifetime.
Help elderly people & their pets
For those older people who still wish to have the companionship of a friendly pet, other members of society can help. Volunteers can walk dogs, wash and groom pets, provide transport and foster care and give financial assistance where necessary. Many programs of assistance programs have been initiated in other countries and help elderly people keep their pets or at least have regular contact with a companion animal.
Positive ageing in the company of animals
Animal Welfare League Australia (AWLA) have surveyed the aged care facilities in Australia and come up with some suggestions for best practice in having animals live and visit within facilities.