As a pet lover, what a joy it has always been for me to have pets involved in my professional long term care career. I honestly cannot imagine directing a facility that was anything but pet friendly, and this isn't just because I personally love animals. It is also because seniors involved with pets reap many rewards. With vaccinated, healthy, well- behaved animals being welcome to visit and/or reside in a long term care environment, one can't help but notice the inevitable benefits that pets bring to seniors. In fact, recent studies show that seniors who own pets go to the doctor less, experience reduced blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced risk of heart disease as well as greater heart disease survival rates. Other studies associate pet ownership with seniors who smile more, talk more, are more attentive and show overall, more feelings of well-being. My first hand experiences certainly support the research – that pets and seniors are a positive combination.
The most obvious benefit to having pets in a long term care environment is that pets bring joy to the residents and lift their spirits. Seniors show an increased interest in life when they have a pet. This is possibly due to the responsibility and sense of purpose associated with pet ownership. One resident pet owner at Morningside of Gallatin states, “It gives me something to do – to get out and walk my dog. It takes my mind off of whatever else it is on.” We have found that having something to “look after” helps provide a meaningful distraction.
I have found that pets often bring great comfort to seniors. Just seeing a dog or cat will usually evoke a smile or a positive response. On one occasion, my dog Lizzy, who comes to work with me every day, overheard me comforting a resident who was very sad and weeping. Lizzy, who is somewhat timid with the residents, came over to us and gently laid her chin on the resident's knee. Somehow, Lizzy seemed to understand that comfort was needed and she responded accordingly. The resident immediately stopped crying and smiled, clearly calmed by Lizzy's presence
Pets can build one's self esteem, too. Pet interaction encourages socialization and communication. Sharing one's pet is an instant conversation starter… “What kind of dog is that, how old is he, where did you get him, etc.” After all, the pet owner is the expert, right? Imagine the pleasure one receives when a facility-owned cat “picks” a particular resident to visit with or to sleep in their spare chair?
Animals can also help put folks at ease in times of stress. Research has shown that pets can help reduce aggressive behaviors among individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Pet therapy could also be a viable alternative to anxiety medications in long term care settings.
It's important to be aware that pet ownership does require certain considerations. Pets that are a good fit for seniors generally are calm and easily managed, on and off leash. Also, it is important to consider the right age and temperament before adopting a pet for interaction with seniors. Financial responsibilities for food, veterinary care, grooming and other needs should be considered. It is important for potential caregivers to recognize their personal physical ability, as well. Finally, think about space limitations. You wouldn't want a Great Dane in an efficiency apartment, after all.
Stephanie Harville is the executive director at Morningside of Gallatin, which is of course, a pet-friendly assisted living facility.