For older adults living alone, pets can be an important line of defense against isolation. ElderDog is working to help senior humans — and senior dogs — find companionship. Learn more about these PAWDs all across Canada.
A loyal pet is often the first face we see in the morning and the last one we say good night to before dropping off to sleep. For many seniors living alone, a pet might provide the only social interaction they experience throughout the day. Yet lots of older adults feel as though they may no longer be able to properly care for a pet, even though they desire that companionship. At the same time, there are plenty of senior dogs who need love and care, whose owners have passed away or moved into a non-pet-friendly retirement home. ElderDog Canada Inc., a non-profit organization based in Nova Scotia, is helping seniors — both human and canine — by making connections between elder dogs and potential owners, facilitating pet care, and endorsing the mental, physical and social health benefits of dog ownership.
Through local volunteer-run chapters called PAWDs, ElderDog is hoping to spread the positive benefits of dog ownership all across Canada, helping both seniors and elder dogs enjoy mutual companionship as they age. Volunteers of all ages engage with ElderDog in a variety of ways, from helping run a PAWD to conducting community outreach to providing foster dog care. One of the primary missions of ElderDog is re-homing senior dogs who have been left behind by their human companions, either because their owner is ill, has passed away, or because they have moved into housing that is not pet-friendly.
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Luckily, lots of people have a particular interest in owning a senior dog — including many senior humans who specifically want an older dog to grow old with. “We place our rehomed dogs with seniors as much as possible,” says Ardra Cole, Founder and Chair of ElderDog. ElderDog also assists older adults with the duties and potential challenges of dog ownership. “Maybe they don’t drive anymore and can’t get that dog to a vet appointment or a grooming appointment, so one of our volunteers would make that happen.” Or if the dog owner has arthritis and cannot groom their pet or administer medications, an Elderdog volunteer helps with that.
“Particularly in Canadian winters, it’s difficult for seniors to get out,” Cole notes, “and it’s not good for the dog’s health either, so we would have volunteers on a schedule going to a senior’s home and taking the dog for a walk.” Of course, at the same time that the dog is receiving a friendly visit, their owner is, too. ElderDog also provides bereavement support and commemorations, such as an annual butterfly release and memorial service in which they honor dogs who have passed away.
Cole started ElderDog after ten years of academic research all across Canada in the area of family caregiving and Alzheimer’s disease. During her research, she says, “I traveled across the country talking with caregivers about their experiences, asking them to take pictures of what care looked like, sharing some symbols of care to get a sense of the meaning of what caregiving meant to them.” Photos and other symbols of family dogs came up so often that it really struck her: “They talked about the important role that the family dog played, not only for the ill loved ones, but also for them in the whole caregiving experience.”
Cole has also owned a therapy dog herself, Tattoo, with whom she would volunteer in long-term care facilities. Seeing the comfort and happiness he provided, particularly in palliative care, was illuminating. But there was a third, even more personal experience that inspired Cole to create ElderDog.
“My brother died very suddenly, and he was living with his old and ill chocolate lab whose name was Mr. Brown. And when my brother died, Mr. Brown was left. He came to live with me, and I had a really lovely place for him — he had cancer and needed special attention and care, and I was able to give him that. But that made me think about what happens to all those Mr. Browns who are left without their human companions. So these things came together in a moment, and ElderDog emerged from that moment.” The initial groundwork was laid in 2009, and three years ago, ElderDog became fully operational.
One of ElderDog’s greatest benefits to humans is the role they play in helping to combat senior loneliness and isolation. By facilitating pet companionship, they are also making it easier for seniors to age in place, even if they don’t have a daily social support network. If an older adult is single, has lost their partner or spouse, and is living alone — possibly at a distance from their family members — a dog can provide valuable social contact, mental health benefits and physical exercise, as many studies have proven.
Ardra Cole points to recent research that has highlighted the negative health correlations of perceived isolation, including increased likelihood of poor health habits as well as a higher risk of illness, depression and even mortality. “To try to work against those feelings of loneliness is really important,” she says. “One of the things that we hear time and time again from seniors, is that their dog is the most important thing in their life. Sometimes their dog is the only other sentient being that they keep company with for weeks or even months on end. Without that dog and that companionship, they’re completely alone, and then they are not just alone but lonely, and that on its own is a significant risk.”
Dogs also give seniors a structured routine to their day, with someone else to look after and get them moving. Cole says, “When they are able to get out and walk with their dog, that gives them exercise, and more important, they have social interaction with neighbors and friends, and they become much more engaged in community life, just by virtue of walking with their dog. Then, when neighbors see them with the dog, they look out for them, because they come to know them a little bit more. Not only are there benefits on a very individual level but in terms of sense of community and neighborhood.”
The ownership of dogs, Cole says, has benefits to seniors that: “…Outweigh any inconvenience or challenge of care that it’s well worth the effort we put in.”
For the challenges that do exist, ElderDog is there to help.
What do you think about the benefits of pet ownership for seniors? Have you been involved with ElderDog as a volunteer or a care recipient? Share your thoughts in the comments below.