The benefits of pet therapy for the elderly
Pets make us healthier and happier, and that can be life-changing for older people.
Our furry friends keep us company and initiate social interactions, motivate us to get out and about, and can even increase our serotonin levels or soothe us. So in what other ways can seniors benefit from pet therapy?
There are a number of benefits of pet ownership for the elderly, including reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and increasing social interaction and physical activity. For those who live in an assistive home or receive support to continue living in their own home, pet ownership is about so much more than health benefits – it’s also about companionship.
The science behind the benefits of pets and the elderly
Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that pets represented important social relationships and significant benefits to their owners. Elderly pet owners showed greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, less lonely, more conscientious and more socially outgoing.
In fact, our pets are such positive influences on our lives that one study found that Australian ownership of cats and dogs saved approximately $3.86 billion in health expenditure over one year!
The physical benefits of pets
According to the RSCPA, research has shown that owning a pet can have a number of physical health benefits, including:
- Increased cardiovascular health (lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides and in men, lower cholesterol)
- Increased physical activity. Dogs especially help us get out and enjoy the outdoors while getting some regular exercise. They are great motivators and personal trainers, never wanting to miss a training session no matter the weather.
- Fewer visits to the doctor (one of the biggest benefits of dog ownership)
- Growing up with a dog (and other pets to a lesser extent) during infancy may help to strengthen the immune system and may reduce the risk of allergies
- Children who have pets are less likely to miss days of school due to illness
Baker Medical Research Institution in Melbourne conducted a study of 5,741 people over a three-year period. They discovered lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels in pet owners than in those who do not own pets, even after accounting for personal factors such as diet, weight and smoking status.
The mental benefits
Research has also shown that owning a pet can have a number of psychological benefits.
For individuals living with dementia who may have difficulty using language, animals can be soothing and can even help these individuals speak and articulate themselves when comfortable.
Pets provide an opportunity for non-verbal communication that can help engage those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.
A recent study conducted in Germany involved dogs visiting 17 nursing home residents suffering from dementia. The study found the participants who took part in the animal assisted therapy sessions had improved verbal communication function and greater attentiveness after the completion of the program.
Another study on the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy measured wellbeing and mood in nursing home residents. The group who had spent time with animals reported feeling ‘enthusiastic’, ‘interested’ and ‘inspired’ significantly more than those who did not spend time with pets.
Pets also play an important role in helping people recover from loss. Elderly people who had recently lost a spouse fared much better if they had a strong attachment to a pet. They suffered significantly less depression, with their pets providing a powerful buffering effect against grief and stress.
Benefits of pet therapy
Pet therapy, also known as Animal Assisted Therapy, is a technique that uses animals to interact with seniors to help improve their health and quality of life overall.
Pet therapy can take many forms, either through owning a pet or participating in dedicated aged care animal programs – such as RSPCA’s Community Aged Care Program.
Studies show that just 15 minutes with a dog, cat, or another service animal can increase brain activity and serotonin levels in seniors. Serotonin is known as “the feel-good hormone” and plays a crucial role in bodily function as well as our experiences of positive emotions.
Pets in the social life of Feros Care
Grescha Brewer, former Byron Bay Village Care Manager, has said that animals bring a lightness and happiness to the villages and put a smile on everyone’s face. Take Betty, a 12-year-old black Labrador who has been visiting the village for five years. She’s part of a regular program of activities that brings animals into Feros Care’s residential villages.
Betty loves life, loves the village and loves the people. That’s clear as the cute four-legged visitor moves around the rooms with a big wagging tail.
“She sits with them, she lays with them on their bed; they get to cuddle Betty all day,” Grescha says.
Skayla is another canine cutie, a five-year old border collie who visits residents every week. For resident Les, Skayla’s visit on Thursdays is worth getting out of bed for. Letitia, the puppy’s owner, says Les and Skayla formed an instant bond as soon as they clapped eyes on each other, and this resulted in a big change for him.
“Les was feeling pretty glum with the world,” Letitia explains. “It was hard to get him engaged with the rest of the Feros Care Wommin Bay community. Now, he is up and dressed and waiting for Skayla each week.
“He has such a huge smile on his face and loves watching her latest tricks. He also loves to feed her the biscuits he collects from his afternoon tea every day.”
Pets offer companionship and affection and help to combat loneliness, which can endanger seniors’ health. They play a vital role in residential care. They bring normality to the day and are a great de-stressor for residents and staff.
However, people are always surprised that animals live in the villages, Grescha says.
“Everyone asks how the dogs manage with the cats and how the cats manage with the dogs – well they just do,” she laughs. “Every day they do something hilarious – they’re fabulous!
“Animals can be so intuitive as well so they’ll choose a resident they feel needs some special attention.”
Animals settle the residents, they bring down their anxieties – they make the place feel more like a home.
Research shows that stroking a pet can decrease a person’s level of stress and help alleviate stress-related disorders and depression. Having dogs, cats, birds and fish around can reduce blood pressure, and encourage people to take better care of themselves which leads to fewer visits to the doctor.
At our three residential villages in Northern New South Wales, we also find that people are more active and playful with pets around, making them feel more energised. This increase in physical activity also improves balance, mobility and stronger bones.