Lifetime Pets | The Elderly

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Filed in Cats, Dogs, Getting a New Kitten/Cat, Getting a New Puppy/Dog

Numerous studies in the past have shown us that the positive effects of pets on the elderly are statistically significant enough that they over-shadow the "old school" thinking about pets and the elderly. Studies have shown that the elderly pet owner generally stays more active - not just the physical activity of taking walks or playing, but the act of performing in the role of caretaker as well.

For some elderly people, the fact that their pet needs to be walked and fed is a reason to get up in the morning or a reason to start the day with a feeling of purposefulness. Pets give people a feeling of "being needed."

Pets are also a buffer against loneliness. Older people with pets comment on the kind of companionship they receive from their pets - unconditional love. It doesn't matter to the cat how fragile Mary has become, it only matters that there is a lap for him to curl up in. Rover doesn't care that Max is on ten different medications and has to take naps during the day, he only cares that Max is there to love him back. The benefits are wonderful and life affirming.

Pets battle loneliness and boredom. Dementia patients often feel more comfortable and loved when pets are around, in fact, long term memory is often stimulated. Petting, grooming and throwing sticks in a game of fetch helps the circulation as well as motor skills.

The varied benefits from the combination of pets and elderly people are well documented and supported. What is less known are the concerns surrounding the combination, and ways to address those concerns.

Today, there are two different environments for pets and the elderly, the home environment and residential care facilities.

Family Pets

Many elderly people have family pets in their homes. Some have been members of the family for years and some have just joined the family. Either way, these much-loved creatures bring happiness and joy to their people everyday. When the pet is a member of the family, there is a need to make sure that the elderly person is able to maintain the care of the pet and that the pet is not a health risk to the person (see below).

Care Facilities

There has been a widespread and delightful change underfoot in senior citizen and health care communities over the past several years. Pets, which were once thought too dirty or cumbersome to be included in the lives of the elderly, are now happy and productive members of many elder communities.

There was a day in the not too distant past where America's elderly population, who needed long term care, were housed in sterile conditions where there were no other living organisms with which to interact. Concepts like the Eden Alternative have demonstrated an institutional, social and medical change-of-heart. In the Eden Alternative care facilities there are resident pets, aviaries, rabbit hutches, butterfly gardens, flowerbeds and more. The premise, in its simplest terms, is that we should approach the long-term care facility as a life environment, not just a place for old people.

There are a few concerns which center on the topic of the elderly and pets: caring for the pet, health risks and how those two things effect the person's and the pet's quality of life.

Caring for the Pet

Many elderly people care for themselves and their pets beautifully. In fact, the role of caretaker is a major source of joy for the pet owner. As with any task or chore, the elderly person should be permitted to manage it just as long as they can do it safely. We do not want to remove the freedoms and joys of life unless they present a health risk to the individual.

When Mr. Kelly moved from free walking to using a walker, his day-nurse took on the chore of walking his large German Shepherd in the afternoon. While the dog was gentle and easy, Mr. Kelly was having enough trouble managing the walker, let alone an 80-pound dog along with it.

Friends and family members should be aware of an elderly person's ability to care for the pet. They should watch for signs that taking care of the pet might become overwhelming or a source of concern for the older person. If there is anxiety about the care, feeding or walking of the pet, then a care schedule should be maintained so that the person can still enjoy the pet without having to worry about the care of it. Family members should also watch for signs that the pet is not being cared for. If the pet has not had a vet visit since his owner stopped driving their car, then a visit is needed. If the pet begins to lose or gain weight, the feeding schedule should be supervised a bit more closely.

Health risks

There are surprisingly few health risks. Elders sometimes have an altered or lessened immune system. Chemotherapy, organ transplants or other illnesses/ procedures which suppress the immune system can make the elderly person (and younger people too) susceptible to infectious diseases which pets might have. In such situations it is important to make sure the person's primary provider or health care provider is aware that the patient has a pet in the home and to make sure the pet receives frequent examinations and screenings for infectious diseases.

More prevalent than immune system deficiencies is the possibility of accidents. A pet who lives with an elderly person must not have behaviors that put the person at risk. Older people, depending on their age and state of health, often have poor balance and brittle bones. A dog who might jump up on them would be a danger to their health.

Miss Edna was 79 years-young and she and her enormous Great Dane had been a staple of the neighborhood for some time. As Edna's health failed, her neighbors worried about Caesar's tendency for leaning into Edna's legs to ask for a rub down.

Sure enough, playful Caesar knocked Edna over one afternoon and help did not arrive for hours. This was a case of a pet who did not fit into the needs of the senior owner. In hindsight, having a trainer come to the home to help train Caesar in more acceptable behaviors would have been a perfect alternative.

A pet who does not know to get up from a sunny spot on the rug when they hear someone come into the room might accidentally trip a person who has poor eyesight or a lack of balance. Falls are a huge concern for most elderly people. One fall can effect the quality of life forever. A broken hip can change a person's mobility status to a point that it considerably changes the quality of life for that person.

Scratches on fragile skin can also be a problem. Skin breaks often do not heal well in a person with poor circulation on those with an inability to clean the wound well. What might be a simple scratch to us may become a serious infection for an elder.

Dementia patients, those who have an affected memory or thought processes, have special needs if they are the caretaker of a pet. They are not likely to forget the pet entirely, but rather they may forget to feed or walk the pet, or conversely, may over feed the pet. Obviously, over and under feeding can be a health risk to the pet. Consider the fact that a pet's behavior is contingent upon the care it receives from its owner. If the level of care lessens, then there is a risk of a change in the pet's behavior as well. If a dog is not walked, then he is likely to urinate and defecate in the house. If this goes unresolved, then there is a serious health risk to both the pet and the person.

Let's be clear about the message here. The point is not that people with different forms and levels of age-related illness and/or dementia shouldn't have pets, on the contrary, the combination of seniors and pets is a fantastic testament to the power of love and kindness. The point remains though that family and friends might want to be active in making sure that the pet and the person share a quality of life that is beneficial to both of them.

Remember:
  • Pets provide wonderful benefits to their elderly owners. They help battle loneliness and boredom.
  • Seniors with pets might need some help in maintaining an appropriate level of care for their pets.
  • Friends and family might want to watch for signs of changes in appearance or behavior in the pets.
  • Friends and family might want to watch for signs of changes in elders' attitude toward the pets (overwhelmed by care taking, etc).
  • Make sure the doctor knows that there is a pet in the home and that the vet knows that there is an older person in the home.
  • A helping hand can make all the difference, and might let the senior keep the pet longer.
     

Deirdre Kelly is a freelance writer, educator, and dog lover living in Florida.

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