By Mary Park Byrne
Last Updated: January 12, 2015
It doesn't take a scientist to know that pets make humans feel
good; anyone who's ever stroked a dog's fur or felt a cat's
thrumming purr knows this. Science can, however, tell us how and
why pets can be therapeutic. Just 15 minutes bonding with an animal
sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of
the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol and increasing production of
the feel-good hormone serotonin. The result: heart rate, blood
pressure and stress levels immediately drop. Over the long term,
pet and human interactions can lower cholesterol levels, fight
depression and may even help protect against heart disease and
stroke. This is why pets for the elderly can be so beneficial.
The Catch: The Pets Can't Be Neglected
One of the biggest concerns of allowing seniors to bring their
beloved pets to assisted living communities is that the program
needs to ensure the pets' well-being. Duvall, Washington
veterinarian, Dr. Kevin Sievers, comments on the importance of the
pets' needs: "Humans benefit greatly from the companionship of a
pet. An animal in the life of a senior can give them new meaning
and improve their well-being, so it is important for seniors to
have a pet in their living environment. I also think it's very
important to remember the health needs of the pets. Seniors can
forget to properly medicate or even feed their pets. Senior living
communities need to be able to help their residents care for their
pets to ensure the health and happiness of both the seniors and
their pets." So the key to an overall healthy relationship for both
the senior and the pet is to have a pet friendly nursing home or
retirement community that can ensure proper care for the pet, if
the senior is not capable.
Fortunately, many senior living
communities are on board with this service and even have a Pet
Care Coordinator at their communities to help make sure all the
pets are well cared for and are up-to-date on vaccines and
veterinary care. This ensures the pets are groomed, fed, walked and
happy when they otherwise wouldn't be if the senior is not able to
perform these responsibilities.
Pet Therapy's Amazing Impact on Improved Senior and Quality of
For seniors, the benefits of a furry companion can be
life-changing. Walking a dog is great cardiovascular exercise, but
just the simple act of caring for a pet-petting, brushing,
feeding-provides both mild activity and a means to stay engaged
with the world. Pets can make the elderly feel needed, and that
feeling can translate into a greater sense of purpose and
self-worth. During what can be a lonely time of life, the
unconditional love of a cherished dog or cat can be a bridge to
more socialization with others, lowered stress, mental stimulation
and a renewed interest in life.
In the past, a move to a nursing home or retirement community
meant giving up this important bond with the animal world. While
many retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing
homes still don't allow pets, it's great that many of these assisted living communities have
decided to integrate pets into their communities, as the pet
therapy benefits to the elderly is overwhelming.
"We don't just let them in," says Steve Winner, co-founder of Silverado Senior Living
with a chuckle, "we require them. Pets are an integral part of what
we do." From the start, Silverado has embraced the power of pets
and pet therapy for the elderly to make happier lives for those
affected by Alzheimer's
and other forms of dementia.
Assisted living communities in the Silverado network not only
have dogs, cats and fish on site, but also miniature horses,
llamas, chinchillas, and even baby kangaroos. "We ask senior
residents to help us care for them," says Winner. "The
responsibility of caring for other living beings builds
Pet Therapy for the Elderly Contributes to Resident
Improvements in Nursing Homes
Pets are not only beneficial to their owners, but have also
proven to have positive effects on other senior residents at
assisted living facilities. "Sometimes new residents can be
withdrawn and not very communicative, and it's the first
interaction with an animal that draws them out," says Winner.
"They're pulled out of their shell by the pets."
Pet Therapy's Impact on Sundowner's Syndrome and Dementia
Pet therapy for the elderly has also proven to be a powerful
tool for what's known as "Sundowner's Syndrome" evening periods of
increased agitation and confusion in those with Alzheimer's.
Animals' non-verbal communication and profound acceptance can be
soothing for those with difficulty using language; some may even
connect with memories of their own treasured pets.
Diego Humane Society's Pet-Assisted Therapy Program has noticed
how even the most profoundly affected patients have displayed
improved appetite, more social interaction and tactile and
cognitive stimulation after interactions with pets. "Animals
provide unconditional love and emotional support in a way that is
unparalleled. Our Pet-Assisted Therapy program brings the joys of
animals to people who are otherwise unable to have an animal in
their life, such as those living in facilities such as convalescent
homes, hospitals, mental health centers, children's homes and
juvenile detention centers," says Judith Eisenberg, Pet-Assisted
Therapy Coordinator for the San Diego Humane Society. "What an
animal can give and teach is a powerful source of healing and
personal connection." In this way, pet therapy is an excellent way
to provide an extra dimension of happiness to senior citizens.
We encourage you to contact communities individually to learn
about their pet policy and find out if there are weight or breed
restrictions as well as community pet care programs.