It’s hard getting older.
Life changes drastically. Your partners, friends and older family members begin to pass away—and your younger family members have a whole life of their own. A lot of elderly people feel isolated as they age, with up to 9% feeling severe loneliness; and it’s not surprising why. Up to a third of elderly Australians live alone, and go out far less often, with 16.2% of those over the age of 65 admitting they didn’t leave the house nearly as much as they’d like.
This number increases to 46.8% for the elderly with profound physical and mental disabilities.
This social isolation has a strong association with poorer mental and physical health—as well as a chance of an earlier death. Older Australians who experience extreme loneliness are up to 14% more likely to die prematurely; a heart-breaking statistic, given the ease of breaking social isolation.
But when friends pass away and younger loved ones become busy, pets can provide amazing companionship and condition-less comfort to the elderly.
Animals—particularly dogs—love us unconditionally; and in a world of loneliness, a loving lick and wag of tail can mean the world.
Dr Jay Granat, an American physiotherapist, says dogs and cats (as well as other pets) can be incredibly beneficial to the elderly because they live very much in the present.
“They don’t worry about tomorrow, which can be a very scary concept for an older person,” he said.
“An animal embodies that sense of here and now, and it tends to rub off on people.”
Not only do animals provide unconditional love, but they can sharpen the mind, and help erase barriers to social interaction. Dogs, for instance, force their owners into the outside world—and even for the socially awkward, our furry friends make for excellent conversation starters.
“Older pet owners have told us how incredibly barren and lonely their lives were without their pet’s companionship, even when there were some downsides to owning an active pet,” said Linda Anderson, founder of the Angel Animals Network in the US.
Active pets also help encourage more physical activity—an important factor in living a healthy lifestyle.
Pets reduce the stress hormone cortisol, increase serotonin levels, fill time and have even been shown to help with memory loss by helping seniors focus on something other than their physical problems and negative preconceptions about loss and aging. Dogs also have an intrinsic instinct for when people are sad or scared—so a puppy’s smile or cat’s fluffy tail can be a great comfort.
Pets can also provide relief for those with mental conditions. Dementia patients, for instance, can experience bouts of agitation—animals can help distract them and calm them down. Interacting with dogs has also been shown to sometimes stimulate those who might not regularly eat to eat.
Older Australians also have a lot more time than their younger counterparts—meaning they can devote their time, love and attention into looking after a furry friend. And they also provide protection for the often vulnerable elderly. Even if you’ve got a small dog, their bark can deter a potential burglar.
However, before adopting, it’s important to consider a number of not-so-easy factors—like the elderly person’s limited physical capacity, as well as disabilities, and the different care requirements of different pets. Animals can also be a financial burden—so potential owners should be aware of everyday costs, as well as potential vet costs. It can also be especially hard for an already lonely elderly person if their beloved pet passes away—and even more heartbreaking to consider, the well-being of the pet if their aging owner sadly passes away.
Plans need to be in place before bringing a pet into your own or loved ones lives—but giving them that unconditional love can quite literally change their world.