According to a 2018 AARP survey, nearly one in three Americans suffer from loneliness, a rate which is only expected to rise as more older adults choose to age in place, often living alone. When left untreated, chronic loneliness can lead to inflammation, excess weight gain, depression, and cognitive decline. In fact, loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality at the same rate of smoking 15 cigarettes per day and can increase the risk of developing dementia. To combat this public health concern, many older adults are finding reprieve in the comfort of pets. In addition to pacifying feelings of loneliness and depression-related symptoms, pets can also lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce the stress hormone cortisol and increase the body’s natural mood booster, serotonin, in their owners.
Animals have a profound effect on the symptoms of depression, isolation and feelings of loneliness. Acting as constant companions, dogs and cats live in the moment and encourage older adults to be present, instead of dwelling on the future, which can be a frightening concept as we age. In addition, animals give their senior owners purpose and responsibility, which can lead to feelings of accomplishment, pride and a sense of security. The simple act of petting an animal releases serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin all of which play a part in elevating moods.
For many older adults, having a pet provides motivation to move more than they would normally. The greatest health benefit comes to dog-walking owners whose extra activity throughout the day can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression; plus, the extra vitamin D is good for improving mood, bone health and promoting overall wellness. Researchers have also suggested that spending time with a pet can increase appetite and promote nutrition, which comes as benefit for the 30 percent of older adults who struggle with changes in diet and feelings of decreased hunger.
Alternatives to Pet Ownership
Pet ownership might not be a viable option for all senior citizens. However, there are a variety of ways to reap the benefits of having a pet without all of the commitment. One popular option, especially for those living with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, is purchasing a robotic pet. Most robotic pets mimic the feel and look of real pets and can ease feelings of loneliness and depression without all of the responsibility.
Pet therapy is also a great alternative, especially for those who live in a residential senior living community. Many hospitals and long-term care communities invite volunteers with therapy animals to conduct regular visits with residents. While these visits are typically short, there is evidence that just 15 minutes of bonding with an animal can increase levels of serotonin, our body’s natural “feel good” hormone.
The cost of adopting and caring for a pet can be a deterrent for some older adults. However, organizations like Pets for the Elderly helps pay animal shelter fees for seniors who adopt a companion dog or cat. In addition, local human societies will often offer senior discounts to make adoption for more accessible for those who need companionship. At Maple Knoll Communities, our Outreach Services program offers low income seniors with access to pet food and other necessities.
While loneliness and depression continue to be a public health concern among older adults, pet ownership can provide benefits that allow seniors to live more joyful and healthy lives.