Increasingly, research shows that older adults can benefit in myriad ways from the companionship of an animal.
Physical health benefits
Pets seem to help us stay calm in the midst of stress:
- Reduced blood pressure and heart rate. Some research shows improvement even when the “pet” is fish swimming in an aquarium!
- Strengthened immune system. One study found an increase in an infection-fighting blood factor.
- Fewer pain medications. Adults who had pet therapy while recovering from joint replacement used 50% less pain drugs than those who did not.
Mood and activity benefits
For elders living alone, pets may provide a kind of companionship essential to well-being. Older pet owners are believed to be more active than their peers. One study even showed that older adults with pets go to the doctor less often than those without.
Other benefits of pet ownership include
- improved mood. Some research shows that petting an animal stimulates release of the brain chemicals that lift mood. This may help explain why other studies link pet ownership with lower levels of depression and anxiety.
- reduced loneliness. A pet can take the edge off of living alone. Or it can help stimulate relationships by providing a topic of shared interest with other pet owners.
- fewer anxious outbursts. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease appear to benefit by having a pet at their home or residential facility. Several studies show less agitated behavior.
- better balance. Older adults who walk dogs regularly appear to be more confident and to have improved balance. These factors may help reduce the risk of a fall.
Researchers caution that there is much work to be done before drawing firm conclusions. But there are already many reasons to consider owning a pet. Goldfish anyone?