Growing Old Together

by Jeff Fleischer

(Chicagoland Tails, November 2007)

Two years ago, Muriel Arny visited her local animal shelter in New Jersey and met Stacey. The connection with her new feline friend was instant.

“I grew up in a household with pets and always had [them],” Arny, now 87, explains. “I was very lonesome after my husband died, and the cat we had died shortly after he did, so I wanted to adopt. When I went to the shelter, as I came in, this paw reached out and held onto me. She was really the one who picked me, and we’ve been close friends ever since.”

Researchers have long acknowledged that people who take care of pets live longer and healthier lives. Pet guardianship tends to reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and provide more chances for exercise and socialization. Anyone who’s had a purring cat on his lap or a dog curled by her feet can attest to the relaxation pets can provide, not to mention the joy and companionship of having an animal waiting at home.

Those health benefits can be particularly important for senior citizens. A May 1999 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that seniors who live independently with pets are healthier—both physically and mentally—than those who don’t. Studies have shown having a pet can be a powerful antidote to the social isolation many seniors face in their golden years, and their care provides a simple dose of daily exercise that helps keep elderly people with pets active.

To that end, many adoption services offer programs that match seniors up with a dog, cat, or other new companion. Because many seniors live on a fixed income, shelters often offer significant discounts to encourage them to adopt.

“Pets give them the chance to interact with someone,” says Marcy Poquette, vice president of the Parsippany Animal Supporters Society in New Jersey, which runs the Pets for Seniors program. “They can help combat depression, which is one of the most common problems facing seniors today. Caring for pets gives seniors a sense of purpose and helps them keep to a regular routine—getting up at a certain time, eating at a certain time.”

Of course, as with any potential adopters, seniors should make sure to find a pet that best fits their lifestyle and needs.

“For seniors like my mother, she’s not going to be able to go out and walk a dog,” Poquette says. “But she has a cat who has a great personality. Her cat seems to sense when she’s a little down or a little blue, and petting the cat and listening to her purr provides a level of comfort.”

Many retirement communities place strict restrictions on pet size, and it’s always best to pick an animal small enough that it won’t be too difficult to walk or care for it. Seniors should also try to meet and play with any potential pet to make sure their personalities are a good fit.

Programs like the Arizona Humane Society’s P.A.W.S. (Partnering Animals with Seniors) specifically match older pets with senior citizens. When choosing one, it’s usually best for seniors to get a fully grown animal—more than 2 years old for cats, at least 3 years for dogs. By that age, dogs will be housebroken, beyond their often-destructive chewing phase, and usually trained with basic commands. For both dogs and cats, personalities will be fairly developed once they’re a few years old, and they tend to be much calmer once they’re past the puppy or kitten stage.

“It’s tempting to want to get a puppy; everybody wants to get a puppy or kitten because they’re very cute and endearing,” explains Emily Gersema, manager of community relations for the Arizona Humane Society. “But unless you have someone with you who has the energy to work with a puppy or kitten, we definitely would recommend an older animal. When people are older and have their own health issues, a pet should make their stress level better, not add to it.”

Just as older pets can be ideal companions for retirees, the reverse is equally true. People who are home more can devote more time to their animal, even if it’s just relaxing or watching television together. Every animal prefers to be talked to, which provides mutual social interaction.

Rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and other small animals can also make good pets for seniors, since they require less work than a cat or dog and are smaller, but still like to play and cuddle. No matter what kind of animal one seeks, it’s important to realize anyone can make a great pet parent if he is willing to give the animal the time and attention she needs.

“At the retirement community where my mother lives, one other woman comes down to visit her cat, but won’t get one because she worries about what happens to the animal after they aren’t able to take care of them anymore, and that’s a concern we hear a lot,” Poquette says. “But if they [adopt] a senior pet, they’ll be able to share and enjoy the golden years together.”

Poquette encourages seniors to put these fears to rest. “They shouldn’t be hesitant,” she says. “The companionship and well-being of having an animal definitely outweighs the concerns of what would happen to the animal if they pass away first. And there are ways to have family and friends take care of the pet if the need arises. Some senior centers even let you designate a ‘pet trustee’ who will look after the animal.”

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