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Helping Senior Parents Care for their Pets

Sally Abrahms
By Sally AbrahmsMarch 31, 2015
Helping Senior Parents Care for their Pets

Pets are wonderful additions to the family and can provide many benefits to their senior owners. But, what happens if your senior loved one needs help caring for their pet? Learn more about the resources available for older pet owners to keep their pooch or beloved cat, or pair pets with older people.

The Power of Pets

Often I see a couple in my neighborhood who look to be in their 80s slowly walking two small dogs who also look to be in their 80s. I wonder what would happen if the couple could no longer take care of their dogs or make the trip to the store to pick up their food — or even afford that food. What about getting to the groomers or the vet? If they moved to senior living, would they be able to bring along their furry family members?

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Happily, there are resources for older pet owners to keep their pooch or beloved cat or pair pets with older people. Programs are springing up around the country to keep man and “beast” together.

I used to take my Springer Spaniel to visit nursing homes. During a visit, a resident said that the hardest part about moving into long term care wasn’t having to leave her house or neighborhood, but not being able to keep her Poodle.

Owning a dog or cat — or for that matter, any animal that depends on you and provides companionship — can lower depression, anxiety, stress, blood pressure and triglyceride levels. You’ve undoubtedly read about many of the scientific benefits of having a pet, which also includes:

  • Improving mood and eating
  • Boosting activity levels and social interaction
  • Encouraging routine

In addition to these benefits, pets can also enhance quality of life by reducing loneliness, which leads to poor mental and physical health. A new Brigham Young University study found that loneliness increases the risk of death by 26%.

Kristen Levine, a pet lifestyle expert and author of “Pampered Pets On a Budget,” recalls an 85-year-old who lived alone and owned a Chihuahua named Jade. When she asked what Jade meant to him, he said:

“He keeps me from being depressed and makes me happy.  Life wouldn’t be worth living without him.”

Pets bring purpose to older people’s lives, especially at a time when fewer people depend on them. Not only can they distract a senior from his or her own health issues, but, in the case of dogs, keep them from being sedentary. They also provide the human touch that is vital to people of any age.

Often a pet is the only “family” someone has nearby, if at all. It’s important to remember that for most, giving up a pet is the equivalent of sacrificing your first-born child.

Keeping Pet and Parent Together

If you are looking to help keep your parents or a senior loved one together, bone up on these tips:

  1. Analyze the situation. Does Dad have a physical limitation and/or financial constraints? Is his dog lacking exercise? Reach out to friends, family and neighbors. Can your son give the dog a bath? Consider doggie day care, with pick up/drop off, socialization and exercise. A neighborhood kid could take the pooch to the park or change kitty litter.
  2. Find a veterinarian who makes house calls. Are there groomers in your area that will wash and gussy up your “baby” in a van parked outside? Does your parent need a dog walker? Let’s Join Paws is a website that matches owners and caregivers.
  3. Explore pet health insurance (i.e. PetPlan, healthpaws or trucompanion).
  4. See if the place Mom may move to is pet-friendly. Marie Schwartz of Fairfax County, Virginia, only considered assisted living that allowed her mother to bring her tabby cat, Mr. Bill. Schwartz credits Mr. Bill with helping her mom make such a good adjustment to assisted living.
  5. Rule out puppies and kittens if your parent wants to get a pet. A dog that is housebroken and been taught manners will be less work and less rambunctious than a puppy or kitten (although older pets have more health issues and can be costly). Programs like the Washington Animal Rescue League in D.C. called “Boomer’s Buddies” pair adopters ages 50+ with animals five years and older. It also waives the adoption fee.
  6. Check if the Meals on Wheels of America program in your area delivers free cat and dog food, and sometimes more, to those who qualify or to veterans. The Protect Animal Life (PAL) Humane Society in Las Vegas via Meals on Wheels picks up the tab for medical and dental care, grooming services, temporary boarding or fostering if a pet owner is hospitalized, and even grief counseling when the pet dies.

Rita Copeland, executive director of the Twin Valley Senior Center in rural East Montpelier, Vermont, has a grant through Meals on Wheels that pays for food and treats, as well as finds volunteers to walk the dog or take a furry critter to the doc’s or wherever it needs to go.

Copeland has seen financially fragile owners have to choose between their own medication and feeding their four-legged “son” or “daughter.”

“Pets to some are like children and they come first,” says Copeland.

Veterinarians and shelters are other resources that may know about programs for older owners, such as Seniors for Pets, Inc., based in Englewood, Florida. Another resource: The Pets For the Elderly Foundation. It pays the adoption and vet fees (of those age 60+ who adopt a dog or cat from a participating shelter). Some breed-specific animal organizations also pitch in.

The most comprehensive list of veterinary assistance and other services is offered on the Humane Society of the United States website with a state-by-state breakdown.

Do you know of any other senior and pet resources that we missed? Share them with us in the comments below.

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Sally Abrahms
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Sally Abrahms

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