Loneliness and Isolation Can Hound Older Adults. Pets Can Help!
Pets have been an essential part of human life for centuries, and they bring joy, love, and companionship to their owners. Aside from their emotional benefits, owning a pet has been known to bring several health benefits. As someone who has witnessed older people struggle with physical and mental health issues, I can attest to the power of pets in improving their well-being. While therapy and medication can be effective in treating mental illness, owning a pet can also play a significant role in promoting overall wellness. Here are some of the ways in which pets can improve health in older adults and why becoming a pet owner might be worth considering.
Accelerated by the pandemic, social isolation and loneliness now affects a large number of elderly in the US. This exposes them to serious conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. While it is difficult to reign on external factors leading to this such as loss of family and friends, reduced mobility or other conditions, bringing a loving pet into the lives of such people can offer a sense of companionship and emotional support. Pets are always there. Whether it is about listening without judgment or offering unconditional love and affection, their presence can be banked upon. They provide us with a sense of belonging and purpose.
Stress and anxiety have become an undeniable part of our daily lives. One in four older adults reported depression during the COVID-19 outbreak. Studies have shown that spending time with pets can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. For example, simply petting a cat or dog can have a calming effect on the nervous system, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.
In addition, owning a pet can help the elderly develop a routine and structure in their daily lives. Caring for a pet will require them to prioritize their needs, which can help them stay organized and focused. This can be particularly beneficial for those who struggle with depression, as it can provide them with a sense of purpose and motivation.
Moreover, pets can offer a source of social support and interaction: a potent anti-dote to social isolation. Taking a dog for a walk or attending pet-related events can provide opportunities for socialization and bonding with other pet owners. A study conducted in the UK in 2019 showed that people with dogs walked more than people without dogs. This can be particularly helpful for those who struggle with social anxiety or who have difficulty forming social connections.
Finally, pets can offer the elderly a sense of security and comfort. For example, having a dog in the house can make us feel safer and more protected, which can be particularly beneficial for those who struggle with anxiety or Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
From companionship and emotional support to stress reduction and improved socialization, owning a pet can bring many health benefits. While pet ownership may not be the solution for everyone, it is certainly worth considering as a valuable tool for promoting wellness, especially in older people. In fact, startups such as BorrowMyDoggy allow people to care for dogs without owning them! The idea is to get pet exposure. Even short spurts of interaction with pets can offer great benefits. If you are an older person experiencing a feeling of loneliness, I encourage you to do your research, talk to your therapist or healthcare provider, and find a pet that will fit well with your lifestyle and needs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the opinions of the author only. This content here is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your medical professional for any medical questions.