It’s a little crazy when you think about it. You bring a companion into your home and feed it, clean up after it, keep it healthy, and excuse it when it chews your new slippers or shreds your favorite chair.
Such is the wonder of pets—that we give so much to animals who offer little utility in return. While scientists don’t have an evolutionary explanation for that, they’ve proven our furry friends provide significant health and social benefits—especially for senior citizens.
Pets help give form and function to the day with their regular demands for food, play, exercise and rest. They entertain us with their antics and keep us mentally engaged. Their friendly presence is a balm for those whose friendships and relationships have been depleted by the years. Dogs, in particular, get their owners out and involved with others during their required daily walks.
Interactions with pets help lower blood pressure and relieve stress by releasing oxytocin and dopamine, two calming endorphins. But humans aren’t the only ones to reap these benefits. The dog or cat being cuddled also experiences stress relief.
For all the benefits of pet ownership, it’s important for seniors to be selective in choosing an appropriate pet. There are expenses associated with pets, including adoption or purchase costs, annual vet bills, grooming and food. The energy level and lifestyle of the pet owner also must be considered.
Dogs are best suited to active seniors who can walk them and pick up after them. Cats, in contrast, are happy homebodies who require little more than a litter box, a healthy diet, and some play and lap time. Birds also make good companions for seniors, especially those whose eyesight or balance puts them at risk for tripping over a cat or small dog.
Another major factor in choosing a pet is its age. While nothing is cuter than a kitten or puppy, it’s often a good idea for senior citizens to choose senior pets. The plight of older cats and dogs is highlighted during November, which is Adopt a Senior Pet Month. Shelters are typically full of older dogs and cats that are at greater risk of being euthanized than young animals.
These “elderly” animals can make great pets. They tend to be more independent and most are already housetrained, which is a big bonus for elderly pet owners who may not have the energy or inclination to take on this major commitment. Seniors may also need to think about who will care for their pet if they are no longer capable of the task, or if they move to a facility that doesn’t allow animals. The lifespan of a young cat or dog may be 10, 15 or more years.
Fortunately, pets are welcome at Monarch Landing, which is home not only to a vibrant community of senior citizens but also 20 dogs, 14 cats and three birds. It also has a pet club where residents pick up tips on the care and feeding of their animals and learn about pet-oriented offerings in Naperville such as the foster pet program at the Naperville Humane Society and the therapy dog program at Edward Hospital. Monarch Landing even has a full-time canine employee—Journey, a trained therapy dog who spends most of his days visiting with residents of The Springs, Monarch Landing’s respite, rehabilitation, long-term and memory care community.
So important is the presence of pets in the lives of senior citizens that technology has found a way to provide some of the advantages without the responsibilities of looking after a living creature. Companies have developed robot pets—dogs that bark and attend to human speech and cats that vibrate softly when they purr. Researchers says the robo pets offer seniors therapeutic benefits, such as a reduction in loneliness. They’re also non-allergenic.
So, whether your perfect pet purrs, pecks, playfully fetches a tennis ball or requires batteries, it’s clear that our companion animals give as good as they get. And make all of us healthier and more human as a result.