Warm-Hearted and Ready to Love: Why Seniors and Pets Are a Perfect Pairing

August 24, 2023

Richard* retired several years ago from a successful career. He lives in a two-bedroom condo in a nice part of town. He’s been married before and is open to the possibility of another romantic relationship in the future, but he’s not actively looking for one. His daughters are grown and have full lives of their own. He looks out for his neighbors and enjoys getting together regularly with several long-time friends. He’s happy with his life, and one of his primary sources of joy is his cat, Sylvie,* whom he adores.

According to the American Humane Society, more than half of all adults over the age of 50 in the U.S. have at least one pet. Millions of older adults, like Richard, derive great satisfaction from their relationships with their pets.

* Not their real names

Pets Give Us More Than Love pets for seniors

Seniors often get a pet for the companionship pets provide. They’re sometimes surprised by how quickly they bond with their new pet, and how deep that bond can grow.

The benefits of having a pet go far beyond the emotional aspects of the relationship. Pet ownership — and even temporary interactions with an animal — can also contribute to older adults’ physical and mental well-being.

Having a Pet Is Good for the Heart …

The happiness a pet brings into an older adult’s life can certainly fill their heart with love for the animal. The health benefits of having a pet also benefit the heart. Pets can help lower their owner’s blood pressure, cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels.

Here’s another way pets can improve heart health: Seniors who own a dog tend to get more exercise than those without a dog. The additional activity can increase cardiovascular fitness while reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

… and Good for the Mind

Along with preventing feelings of isolation and loneliness, pets usually have a calming effect on older adults — including those living with Alzheimer’s disease who sometimes become agitated or restless.

Just being around an animal and interacting with it can lower stress by decreasing cortisol levels and increasing serotonin. This, in turn, can help ease anxiety and depression.

And There’s More

Increased socialization is among the many benefits of pets for the elderly. In the years following retirement, a person’s social connections can diminish for a variety of reasons. At the same time, it can become more challenging to form new friendships.

But along with the other health benefits of having a dog, such as increased physical activity, seniors with dogs typically have more built-in opportunities to meet and connect with new people. Whether they take their dog with them on a hiking trail, to the dog park or just around the neighborhood, they’re out and about, engaging with others and with life.

Pets Enrich the Lives of People With Dementia, Too

Although each person is unique, most people living with dementia will also reap social benefits from regular visits with a pet. In fact, some memory care communities invite trained pet therapy animals in to spend time with residents. These communities know that therapy animals have a special way of encouraging residents to interact with them — even residents who are reluctant to interact with other people, including their own family members.

“Animal-assisted interventions,” according to the Alzheimer’s Society, “can improve self-esteem and confidence in people with dementia.”

Having a pet can also help people who are experiencing varying degrees of cognitive decline with memory recall.

Pet Ownership Provides Structure and Purpose

Seniors who own a pet may discover their new “roommate” gives them a variety of reasons to get out of bed and greet the day. Owning a pet means taking on responsibility for another living being. Caring for a pet involves a routine: mealtimes, grooming, exercise, play and cleaning up after the pet.

Some older adults will embrace the additional responsibilities of pet ownership. It gives them a sense of purpose, which can help them thrive, but not all older adults are able — or want — to take on the extra effort of properly caring for a pet. It’s not all fun and games; there’s work, too, and that needs to be taken into consideration beforehand.

For most pet owners, the love and companionship their pet provides is well worth the effort it takes to look after their pet. Those who choose to welcome a new pet into their home, especially one from a shelter or rescue organization, can also feel good about the positive difference they’re making in their pet’s life.

Important Considerations Before Getting a Pet

Maybe you’re an older adult and the pet will be for you. Or maybe you’re planning on getting the pet for an older adult in your life. Either way, think about these crucial points before making a commitment.

  1. Are you (or your loved one) able to handle the physical demands of owning the pet?
    Some pets, particularly puppies and kittens, have a lot of energy and will get bored easily. Most dogs need to be walked multiple times a day, which may be challenging for an older adult with limited mobility. Medium-sized and large dogs might be too strong for some seniors to walk, especially if they pull on the leash. Smaller dogs and cats often like to walk with their owners while inside the home and might inadvertently trip an older person if their balance or reaction time is not so great. Big bags of food or litter can be heavy and hard to handle. Most pets require some amount of grooming, and regular vet visits should be part of the pet’s care — will getting the pet to the vet and back be a problem?
  2. Will the expense of caring for the pet be a problem?
    After the initial cost of adopting the pet, there’s the ongoing cost of food, supplies, maybe grooming and veterinary care. These can easily exceed more than $1,000 a year, and that’s for a healthy pet. Vet care for an ill or injured pet can cost hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. Pet owners who travel will need to either board their pet or pay a pet sitter to take care of their pet. Seniors on a fixed income may find these costs are more than they can afford.
    There may be less expensive pets to consider, or maybe there are other ways to spend time with animals other than owning one — like pet-sitting for a friend, visiting someone who has a pet or volunteering at a shelter.
  3. Are pets allowed where you (or your loved one) live?
    This might be more of a sticking point if you rent rather than if you own your home. Some homeowner associations limit the number of pets residents can own and may place restrictions on certain dog breeds. Rental contracts often include similar restrictions or may not allow any pets at all. If you rent, you may need to pay a pet deposit, a pet cleaning fee and monthly pet rent.
  4. What kind of pet would be best?
    Generally, smaller dogs and cats are safer, smarter choices for older adults. But some breeds, such as Jack Russell terriers and Abyssinian cats, are known for being full of energy — sometimes to the point of being rambunctious. Also consider the amount of living space you have. A larger dog may not be comfortable or happy in a small apartment.
    Last but far from least, consider the age of the pet. Puppies and kittens are adorable little fluffballs that are hard to resist. But they can require a tremendous amount of time, effort and energy. You should also think about the pet’s expected lifespan. Do you have a backup plan in case they outlive you or your loved one? It may be better to adopt an older cat or dog that has already been trained and is more settled. Even so, having a contingency plan in place is wise for all pet owners.

Here at The Variel, We Say Bring Your Bundle of Furry Bliss!

Our staff knows all about the reciprocal benefits of the relationships between seniors and their pets. Many of us have pets, and we think of them as part of the family. In a way, the pets who live at The Variel are part of our extended family.

While not all senior living communities allow pets, we welcome them with great enthusiasm. If you decide to come have a look around, there’s a strong possibility you’ll see at least one or two residents with their dogs while you’re here.

If you’re interested in learning more about our community, let’s connect. We’d love for you to experience The Variel in person. You can meet some of the residents who’ve made this such a fun-loving place to live — and you may discover that you and your four-legged friend would like to join us!

Featured Image: SeventyFour / Shutterstock