In his book Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande tells the story of how, in 1991, a young New York state physician named Bill Thomas set about a creating a wholesale culture change in the nursing home where he had been appointed medical director. He found the place depressing, full of listless and helpless people whose days passed largely without engagement or liveliness. After ruling out medical reasons for the apathy he saw, he settled on three causes for the residents’ poor quality of life: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness.
As he set about combatting these ills, Dr. Thomas hit upon the idea of animal companions. Specifically, he fought for and got permission to introduce two dogs, four cats, and 100 birds. Yes, 100 birds! His goal was to introduce contact with the natural world into the unnatural environment of a nursing home. A side benefit was that helping to care for the animals gave residents a purpose and reason for living. It is good to be needed.
Seniors living at home, many of whom have limited interaction with other people, often adopt pets for the same reason.
Adopting any pet after the age of 50, however, can come with some unexpected complications. In this article, we’re going to go over the pros and cons of pet ownership in your later years, so you can help your loved one decide if it’s the right choice for them.
Pro: Owning a pet is great for your health. Having a dog, in particular, can help encourage physical activity in the form of daily walks and play time. In one study of older adults, dog walking was associated with lower body mass index, fewer doctor visits, and fewer limitations to daily living.
In addition, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, owning a pet can decrease your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, and the American Heart Association states that pets may help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Con: Caring for pets can be physically taxing. The flip side of that coin is that many elderly adults have physical limitations and caring for a pet may be too much for them to handle. Whether they’re young or old, many pets demand physical attention or may require special care of their own. For example, a puppy can be quite energetic and requires a lot of playtime, while an older dog may need help getting down the stairs to go outside. And smaller pets can require just as much work: rodents, fish, and birds all have cages which need to be cleaned weekly – a task an older adult may find too physically demanding.
Pro: Owning a pet reduces feelings of depression. Carlyn Montes De Oca, author of Dog as My Doctor, Cat as My Nurse says, “An animal companion in your life gives you a strong sense of purpose. Dogs and cats make us take care of them, and that makes us take care of ourselves.” And indeed, many studies show that owning a pet can help break the cycle of mild to moderate depression. Why? At least in part because a pet can remind you that you’re not alone and offers unconditional love.
Con: Pet ownership is a big commitment. Physical exercise isn’t the only commitment that some pets require. No matter what type of animal you own, it’s a commitment of money, time, and energy. Every pet requires daily care, routine veterinary visits, food, toys, and attention.
Pro: Animals encourage living in the ‘now’. It’s a fact: many older adults spend a lot of time thinking about what’s in store for them: potential financial hardships, possible illness or injury, loss of friends, even death. But a pet encourages them to live in the moment and truly enjoy what’s happening RIGHT NOW – a very welcome change for many.
Con: Certain animals may outlive you. Many older adults worry about what will happen to their pets once they’re gone. With smaller animals, it’s not such a big concern: hamsters, guinea pigs, and other rodents usually only live two to three years. But a kitten or a dog can live well past 15 years old, depending on breed, and many birds can live for decades.
Pro: No matter what kind of animal you get, you may be saving a life. I’m going to end on a pro and say that if you or your elderly loved one adopts a pet from a shelter, you are likely saving its life. For many older adults, this provides a huge sense of purpose. And because they feel responsible for this animal’s life and well-being, they are more likely to take better care of themselves.
Adopting a pet at any age is a huge responsibility, but it takes on even greater implications for the elderly. Still, the health and wellness benefits almost always outweigh the cons.
The key to successful pet ownership at an advanced age is simply to plan.
- Assign a designee to care for the animal in the event your older loved one becomes unable to do so
- Research local dog walkers that may be able to help out with daily activities (often, they can also provide play time and feedings in addition to walks)
- Locate a mobile vet clinic in the area so your loved one doesn’t have to try to leave the house with an animal
Do you have an elderly loved one with pets? Have they found that it’s beneficial for their health, or more of a burden?