How pets can help with loneliness – and more

By Michele McGovern

Pets can help older adult’s enjoy life more and stave off loneliness. Research proves it. Pet lovers swear by it.

And now, a year after the onset of a pandemic, even the skeptical believe it. Pets can be a positive addition to almost any home, helping with mental and physical wellbeing.

Full disclosure: I was the skeptic about the virtue of pets – until the pandemic. Then I saw the power of a pet in an older adult’s life. My mother-in-law’s poodle was her lifeline. Woody was a constant companion, friendly buddy and fun distraction. He was a reason for her to exercise and get fresh air every day – and that helped get her through the pandemic.

Research-proven benefits of pet ownership

Pandemic or not, pets can help older adults positively address physical and mental wellbeing. According to research from Pets For the Elderly Foundation, pets provide these benefits:

  • Decreased loneliness. Pets are companions. They give seniors who’ve been isolated by the pandemic or otherwise affection, conversation and reasons to interact.
  • Stress relief. Pets need physical contact, and that calms human anxiety. Research also shows being with pets increases the feel-good hormone, serotonin, so older adults experience less stress.
  • Increased interaction. Walking a dog, purchasing pet food, or just sharing stories with other pet owners gives older adults opportunities to socialize.
  • Boosted self-esteem. Older adults who might feel down on themselves get regular reminders from loving pets that they’re needed and loved.
  • Decreased depression. Pets need humans, and that need for care and affection helps older adults avoid hopeless, worthless and helpless feelings that lead to depression.
  • Better heart health. Interacting with a pet lowers blood pressure, cholesterol and the dreaded cardiovascular diseases associated with them.
  • Increased activity. Pets need attention and exercise. Older adults move more when they have to walk, groom and play with pets.
  • Better personal care. People who own pets tend to take better care of themselves by sticking to routines, eating regularly and following through on chores.

Recognize the commitment

But pet ownership isn’t all fun, games and affection. It takes time, effort and commitment to take care – and reap the benefits – of pets. Before you consider buying or adopting a pet, ask yourself:

  • Can I physically care for a pet? Are you able to move and feed the pet? In the case of a dog, can you take it for regular walks?
  • Do I have experience taking care of a pet? First-time owners can get overwhelmed.
  • Can I afford to have a pet? Even if you adopt a pet, there will be other expenses. Can you afford to feed the pet, keep it vaccinated and maintain its veterinary health?
  • Am I available to care for the pet? Active older adults, who like to travel and/or participate in safe activities outside their homes, may find it inhibitive to care for a pet every day.
  • Do I have a backup if I can’t care for the pet? Is there someone who can help if you aren’t able to give your pet the attention it deserves?
  • What would be the best choice for a pet? Consider your physical ability, finances and lifestyle before choosing a pet.

How to find the right pet

So you’ve decided to give a pet a home. Here are four tips on how to find the right pet:

  • Consider the breed. If you’re looking for a dog, consider the breed’s temperament and activity level. While every animal is unique, some breeds are more likely to be high energy, docile, exercise-hungry, aggressive, etc. If possible, talk with a veterinarian or animal expert for tips. If you identify a specific breed you’d like to adopt, you can likely find professional breeders through your experts, too.
  • Consider the age. A puppy or kitten, which tend to be more full of energy and aren’t house trained, may not be ideal for older adults. And older pets may require excessive care. Think about how much energy you’re able to put into the pet’s care.
  • Consider a shelter pet. Many are trained. They all need a home. You can contact your local shelter directly, or you can get help finding a good pet fit through organizations such as Pets for the Elderly.
  • Take a test run. Most shelters and rescue groups need volunteers to help care for dogs, cats, birds, rabbits and other animals. Some even have foster programs, so you can bring animals home temporarily. The one-on-one time might help you decide if pet ownership is ideal for you – and if it is, you’ll quickly be an expert at taking care of pets.

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