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The Benefits of Caring for a Pet

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No doubt you can still recall your first dog or cat and all the joy they brought into your life. For the young as well as the old, especially if they have Alzheimer's disease or another form of memory loss, there are many benefits in caring for pets.

I remember one woman who was in her mid-50s and had been diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer's disease. When she first moved to the memory care neighborhood at a senior living community, she had a really difficult time adjusting to her new environment. She was extremely reticent when asked to join in social activities and often seemed to be searching for someone or something. An immediate transformation occurred when she was introduced to the neighborhood dog. It seemed as if she found exactly what she had been searching for during her frequent walks up and down the hallways.

The resident eagerly agreed to be of assistance when the staff asked her to help them keep fresh food and water available and walk the dog in the courtyard each morning and evening. She no longer looked sad and withdrawn because she once again had meaning and purpose in her life as well as a sense of structure to her day. As a result of this intervention, her husband also said that he felt much better about his decision to move her there. He reported that he was very pleased to see her self-confidence reemerging and felt that the community pet was a symbol of the one she loved and cared for at home some years earlier.

Many senior living communities, such as Sunrise Senior Living, integrate pets into the daily lives of residents by having a dog or cat live full-time in the community. Here are five benefits that pets offer for seniors, whether at home or in a senior living community:

1. They provide companionship

An older adult's basic human need for security, affection and sensory contact can be met by holding, stroking or nurturing a pet. Experts report that pets can decrease loneliness, help to reduce stress, and encourage exercise and playfulness. This not only benefits the body but also the spirit! Because of the companionship and unconditional affection they give, pets can be a great source of comfort and security to seniors that tend to be isolated, which helps them to feel less lonely.

2. They increase social interaction

You've probably noticed that people respond both visually and verbally more to others who bring their pets with them on a walk around the neighborhood or to the park. There is something about a pet that often helps to "break the ice" and promote conversation. Having a pet encourages social interaction, which is known to be beneficial to both cognitive and emotional health. Many people like to tell stories about their pets or give updates on their well-being, so pets can also serve as a conversation starter with visitors, family and friends.

3. They have a calming effect

Pets offer comfort and ease anxiety. Playing with a pet can raise levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine which stimulate relaxation. According to research, pets also have both a normalizing and a calming or soothing effect on seniors with memory loss who exhibit actions such as aggression and agitation.

4. They provide meaning and purpose

People with Alzheimer's disease or another form of memory loss have the same basic human needs as everyone else. Many still express great joy and satisfaction through interacting with animals. Whether at home or in a senior living community, seniors with memory loss may enjoy taking on the role of caregiver for a pet by helping with the pet's feeding and grooming needs. This gives them a newly found sense of identity and purpose.

5. They add to the homelike environment

Especially in a senior living community, pets have a way of creating a homelike environment. In fact, the community dog is frequently the first to greet visitors as they enter the front door, making them feel welcomed immediately.

Even if it's not feasible for a senior to own and care for a pet, look for opportunities to spend time with animals, whether it's visiting a senior living community or caring for a friend's dog or cat for a short term. Sometimes a dog or cat can provide comfort that a human just can't!

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Photo courtesy of Sunrise Senior Living, Inc.

For more by Rita Altman, R.N., click here.

For more on pet health, click here.

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