"Just One More Thing We Do to Older Adults" Pets: Not a luxury, a Lifeline.
Photo: Meet BizKit, at work showing off and giving love to residents living in a care home.
Sometimes, your pet picks you. –Julie Wenzel
Growing up, I never had a pet dog; when I turned 40, a JackChi named Bizkit adopted me. How did I survive 40 years without a four-legged friend filled with unconditional love?
Can you imagine being forced to part with your pet because of forces outside your control?
I now understand the separation anxiety my grandmother endured when she moved into a skilled nursing facility that was not pet-friendly.
Rizzo was not just her dog; Rizzo was her family, akin to her child. Losing her home was tough, but losing her dog was devastating. Rizzo gave her life meaning and companionship. I can still hear her cries "Where is my dog!? I want my dog!".
In the U.S., at least 50% of older adults have pets that provide numerous physical, mental, emotional, and social benefits.
Companion animals offer a sense of safety, security, stability, and continuity when faced with transitions that can occur in later life, such as loss of employment, and relationships.
Older adults with companion animals report increased feelings of happiness, self-efficacy, and relaxation and decreased loneliness and isolation. Research shows older adults who spend time at home in the company of their pets have improved mental health outcomes.
Pets also encourage physical activity and increase community engagement through shared activities like dog walking groups. A study of adults aged 50+ showed frequent dog walkers reported a high sense of community and increased physical activity, supporting healthy aging.
There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats. – Albert Schweitzer
A study published early this year, 'Leashes, Litterboxes, and Lifelines:- Exploring Volunteer-Based Pet Care Assistance Programs for Older Adults, offers insight into the significance of maintaining human-animal relationships and how to prevent pet separation.
Researchers explored Pet Assist, a volunteer-based pet care assistance program for socially disadvantaged, low-income, community-dwelling adults aged 65+ in Calgary, Alberta.
Pet Assist offers practical assistance at no cost for various companion animals, including dogs, cats, birds, and other species. Participants receive help with dog walking, litter box or cage cleaning, minor grooming, obtaining pet food and supplies, transportation, temporary boarding, and subsidized veterinarian costs.
The program also nurtures meaningful relationships with volunteers through a shared love of animals, growing social capital for older adults more susceptible to isolation.
Barriers older adults living on a fixed income face keeping their pets include a lack of pet-friendly housing, transportation, financial means to pay for food, pet supplies, veterinary care, disability, and chronic illness.
A Pawsitively Purrfect Solution!
Researchers discovered five recurring themes of the effects of 'Pet Assist' through qualitative interviews with stakeholders after four years of program delivery.
Theme 1: Just One More Thing We Do to Seniors
Researchers found that older adults receiving support from Pet Assist had experienced numerous structural inequities and endemic ageism.
Volunteers noted how society perpetuates the idea "that if you can not take care of a pet, you should not have a pet," reinforcing the view that relationships with pets are dispensable for older adults when challenges arise, such as illness.
Pets provide joy and purpose, and being forced to part with a beloved pet is devasting.
Theme 2: Intertwined Lives, Intertwined Quality of Life
Older adults highly value the human-animal bond and, without support, may sacrifice their own needs and health to maintain a relationship with their pets.
Theme 3: Continuity in the Face of Adversity
Participants consistently reported that their pets gave them a reason to get up in the morning, a sense of purpose, and a structured routine. Animals offer a semblance of continuity when life transitions occur.
Pet Assist also provides continuity when a pet dies. Volunteers have an authentic relationship with the animal and the client and can offer comfort and shared grief. Volunteers interviewed expressed a desire to maintain relationships with older adults beyond pet needs, increasing social capital for volunteers and older adults!
Theme 4: A Critical Lifeline Keeping People and Pets Together
Pet Assist's support helps keep pets and people together while offering social connections with volunteers.
Theme 5: Building Connections that Cross Species Lines
Volunteers noted that they, too, receive benefit's from Pet Assist.
Opportunities to go for a walk in the company of pets and share responsibility with older adults grows:::
Reciprocal-Shared Care: Enhancing the health and wellbing of older adults, their pets, and the volunteers!
There's a saying. If you want someone to love you forever, buy a dog, feed it and keep it around. – Dick Dale
Building Livable Communities
According to AARP, Livable Communities:
enhance personal independence;
allow residents to remain in their homes and communities as they age; and
provide opportunities for residents of all ages, ability levels, and backgrounds to engage fully in civic, economic, and social life.
The human-animal relationship is an often neglected dimension of
age-friendly and livable communities.
Aging-in-place policies would be wise to recognize the attachment older adults have to their pets in addition to the emotional attachments to place (home and neighborhood).
By increasing pet-friendly affordable housing and co-creating volunteer-based programs similar to Pet Assist, we can enhance older adults' quality of life and wellbeing while growing community connectivity and social capital.
And for people who live in a care facility, programs like Pet Assist may help promote a
pet-friendly environment enabling residents to keep their pets.
Bizkit provided so much joy and love for all the residents,
and I am pretty sure he relished the attention too!
Not only will older adults benefit, but programs like Pet Assist promote intergenerational connections that enrich and energize all ages.
All Ages need the snuggles, comfort, joy and unconditional love animals willingly share.
Photo: Bizkit Growing Reciprocal-Shared Care with a resident living in a memory care facility.
Perhaps the greatest gift an animal has to offer is a permanent reminder of who we really are. ― Nick Trout
Applebaum, J. W., Ellison, C., Struckmeyer, L., Zsembik, B. A., & McDonald, S. E. (2021). The impact of pets on everyday life for older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in public health, 9, 652610.
McLennan, K., Rock, M. J., Mattos, E., & Toohey, A. M. (2022). Leashes, Litterboxes, and Lifelines: Exploring Volunteer-Based Pet Care Assistance Programs for Older Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 1617.
Toohey, A. M., McCormack, G. R., Doyle-Baker, P. K., Adams, C. L., & Rock, M. J. (2013). Dog-walking and sense of community in neighborhoods: Implications for promoting regular physical activity in adults 50 years and older. Health & Place, 22, 75-81.