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Pets can be therapeutic for the aging population

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Numerous studies have shown that pets can increase the quality of life for our aging population. The unconditional love of a dog or the soft purring of a snuggly cat can be helpful for many people, even in later stages of dementia. Many nursing homes, notably those based on The Eden Alternative, have found animals including dogs, cats and birds, along with plants and other natural surroundings, to be soothing and beneficial to people in nursing homes. My personal experience with several of my elders showed me that pets can make a difference.

Studies showing the positive effect on aging people abound. One site, Pets For the Elderly, is packed with studies showing the wonderful effect that pets can have on elders. My own research includes my neighbor, Joe.

I became Joe's default caregiver during the last five years of his life. Joe was a lonely eighty-year-old widower, deaf since his 30s. He loved to feed the birds outside, to the extent that he was able to convince a few Blue Jays to winter over in our far north location. After spending significant time as Joe's daily visitor and caregiver, I one day said, "Joe, let's go get a bird for you." He loved the idea, so we gathered up my boys, I got out the car, and we drove to the mall. Joe picked out a pretty turquoise parakeet he named Nuts.

Nuts, or "Nutsie" as we called the bird, became an incredibly important part of Joe's life. Joe could remember only one tune from the days when his ears worked. It happened to be "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi." He didn't know why he remembered that particular tune, as he was not in the Sigma Chi fraternity when he was young and in college, but the song had a popular run and the tune stuck with Joe. He'd sit at in a chair next to Nutsie's cage by the hour, often squawking out his unique version of "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi." The bird would chirp along, though Joe couldn't hear it.

Lost Pet Devastates Elder

One day, after cleaning the bird's cage, Joe forgot to close the cage door. When he returned to the cage Nuts was gone. Joe apparently had been sitting and moping, with the aid of some vodka, until I came for my morning visit. I could even see signs of shed tears as he told me, "Nutsie's gone. He's lost."

I ripped through the house, praying that I'd find that bird and get it safely back in the cage. Joe was consumed by grief. Just about the time I was giving up, I heard a chirp. Sure enough, Nutsie had gotten up on a curtain rod and snuggled smugly into the folds of the drapes. I finally caught the bird and put him in his cage. Joe was ecstatic and life was once again worth living.

We had a few other adventures of that sort. Once I had to fish the bird out from behind Joe's refrigerator. But we always rescued Nutsie. When Joe broke his hip and had to move to a nursing home, I asked the administrator if Nutsie could join Joe. I told them I'd take complete responsibility for the care of the bird. They graciously said yes, and Nutsie was with Joe until the day Joe died. My kids and I then took Joe to our home.

Cats, Dogs and Birds: The Eden Alternative Movement

Similar stories about dogs, cats and other animals abound. My dad loved dogs and every time a dog was brought to the nursing home where he lived, I made sure the dog visited Dad. I've know of elders who actually wanted to move to an assisted living center, but they wouldn't give up their old dog or cat in order to do so. If the center couldn't accommodate the animal, it was not going to get the human. That's understandable. Our pets become part of our families. When an elder is alone in a home, the pet is even more important. It is often, for hours on end, their only companionship. Such elders often do better physically and mentally than those who have no animal companionship.

The Eden Alternative is a nursing home concept that is part of the culture change in the nursing homes movement. Homes approved as Eden Alternative homes must meet certain standards, but part of what they offer is animals who become part of the home's environment. The Eden Alternative home in my town has a large aviary where birds flutter and play, plus dogs, and cats. Many forward-looking nursing homes offer animals as part of the surrounding for their elders because they know the soothing effect animals have for many people.

Elders and Pets: What Should You Do?

So, should you go out and get Grandma a new puppy? Probably not. Puppies are like babies. They chew on things, need toys, need to be housebroken, and can trip an unsteady elder. I do think it's great, however, if you can bring a pet to visit lonely elders. Many people do that as service work for nursing homes. If you happen to be caring for an elder and have a pet that the elder likes, bring the pet along when you visit. Birds are less worry than many other animals and they can be great company, as proven by Joe and Nuts.

Not every elder benefits from animal friends. Some may be allergic to animals. Some may have always been afraid of animals or find them unclean. But for most elders, the company of a pet or even a visit from you with your pet in tow can have an uplifting, and even life sustaining, effect. Elders need to be part of the living world and that world often include pets. Pets For the Elderly can supply you with plenty of studies to support that theory.