Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticism.
Animals enrich a person's life. This is particularly true for older people who may be lonely for many reasons. Perhaps, their spouse has died or, perhaps, they don't have a spouse; their family may live far away or, if they don't have children and are quite elderly, they may have no close living relatives. Whatever the case, elderly people with pets are less lonely and have a higher quality of life. Some studies have shown that pets lower blood pressure and that elderly cardiac patients with pets have a lower mortality rate than those without pets. All of this makes sense to me. Humans aren't meant to live alone and nurturing another living being, can't help but improve one's life. (more on nurturing plants, aka gardening, in a future post.)
What sorts of pets are good for older people?
What pets are the most elder-friendly? One website lists some suggestions here: Best pets for elderly people. Not surprisingly, small dogs top the list. They're affectionate and not as expensive and demanding as larger dogs. Cats are an obvious choice and one that suits many people - myself included. Birds are also a good choice, depending upon the climate one lives in, the type of bird chosen, and the ability and desire to clean a cage. Many birds have the added benefit of being able to talk. What matters is that an elderly person who wants additional companionship chooses a pet that is right for them. Family members can help with this process.
What are the benefits of pets?
- Someone to talk to
- Nonjudgmental affection
- Reduces stress
- Encourages exercise
- Encourages routine
- Encourages meeting others
- Someone to live for
Here's another take on why pets are good for older people.
How can people get similar benefits without owning a pet?
Many older people either can't afford to own a pet or live in a facility that doesn't allow pets. They may also be too overextended, if they're caring for an ailing spouse, to take time for a pet. This doesn't mean that older people can't have meaningful contact with animals in other ways. Wild birds are particularly good for this. Whether you live in the city or a rural or suburban area, it is easy and inexpensive to feed the birds. You can just take some stale bread or other inexpensive treats to a park and feed the pigeons or the ducks. This can be a good way to meet people, get some fresh air, and some exercise. Feeding the birds at home, using a bird feeder or two, can lead to ongoing relationships. Many nursing homes and rehab centers have bird feeders and I'm sure they bring hours of enjoyment to the residents. We have a hummingbird feeder on our window and even though I can't really tell the three or four hummingbirds who visit us apart, I feel as though we've gotten to know "our" hummingbirds and look forward to their arrival. Birds more than repay the small amount we may spend to feed them through charming behavior, beauty, and - if we're lucky - song. (Note: this can be a relatively inexpensive way to bring some happiness into the life of your elderly parent(s). If they don't already feed birds, buy them a feeder and help them set it up near a window where they can easily see the feeder while eating or relaxing.)
Dealing with Pet Loss
Sadly, pets often don't outlive their owners. Cats are lucky to make it to 18 or 19 years old and few dogs live past 12 or 13. Even parrots don't live forever. My aunt recently lost her favorite cat. She still has one cat left; however, this cat isn't young either. It seems likely that my aunt will outlive her other cat too. When a beloved companion dies, the impact can be devastating. This article suggests that Pet Loss is Hardest on the Elderly. That doesn't surprise me. My aunt is still grieving for the loss of her cat. Old age brings so many losses, but a companion that one lives with, whether human or animal, is the hardest loss of all. When an older person loses a beloved pet, it can cause deep grieving. Despite, the pain of pet loss, the joys of sharing one's home with a pet are great. Elderly people particularly need the connection with life that pets - and wild birds - provides.