Pets Can Serve As Caregiving CompanionsBy Margie Culbertson

(This story is by Margie Culbertson, an AARP Mississippi volunteer and freelance writer. She is pictured on the left.)

It was Christmas, three years ago. Grady was his usual self. Prowling the kitchen for any scrap of food the little schnauzer could find.

We’d worked all day on the meal, preparing dishes of delicious food of every kind. The house was beginning to fill with family noises, so Gramma began to place each dish on the table. When she heard clapping, she went to the living room just in time to see the end of a skit. About then, I excused myself to the kitchen to grab the last of the food. When I entered the dining room, I couldn’t believe my eyes. All the various foods were there, but in the center of each dish was a huge hole. That’s when I saw Grandy lying across the room. He was head down, eyes up at me, and he looked forlorn. He looked uncomfortably full.

We animal lovers all know how important pets are to our lives, and many of us have stories about our pets like this one. We know loving our pets makes us feel better. What might surprise us, though, is that dozens of scientific studies have found impressive links between pet ownership and improved health of the owner, especially if the owner is a senior.

According to the Pets for the Elderly Foundation, the benefits to elderly persons are ten-fold. They state that studies have shown that senior pet ownership leads to: 1) lower blood pressure and pulse rate; 2) 21% fewer doctor visits; 3) less depression; 4) less loneliness; 5) easing of pain in the loss of a loved one; 6) enhanced social opportunities; 7) seniors taking better care of themselves; 8) seniors becoming more active; 9) a sense of security for the senior; and  10) seniors receiving priceless affection and unconditional love.

Other studies include one relating to coronary disease patients. Results found that animal companionship is significantly conducive to a higher survival rate in seniors. One research study has been reported as finding that: pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than non-owners; widows who have cats show better health during their first year, which is a critical stress time, than widows who do not; the simple act of holding an animal decreases surgical patients’ healing times; and finally, the long-term survival rates of heart attack victims who have a pet are significantly longer than for those who did not. Other research found that cat owners are 40% less likely to develop a chronic illness or heart disease.

Even at the stage in a senior’s life when a hospice is involved, one veterinarian and chaplain, Delana Taylor McNac DVM, believes the importance of pets cannot be overstated, “Part of hospice philosophy involves providing support to the patient’s family and we believe that pets are family to many hospice patients.”  

Pets are our best friends, our companions, and can even feel like our caretakers. As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”

(Next month, we will continue our segment on caregivers, this time focusing on the forecasted shortage of caregivers for Baby Boomers.)

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