By Cindi Laws

Americans are clearly pet lovers, and pets outnumber children in many urban and suburban areas. For seniors, pets provide a tremendous quality of life, providing companionship and unconditional love that is especially needed when human family members may not visit often. With the need for feeding, grooming and care, pets provide purpose at a time when many seniors feel they have little use in our fragmented society. Numerous studies document the healing power of pets, of pets “diagnosing” cancer and infection, and of pets knowing when their owner’s time has come.

Uplifting media stories abound of pets rescuing their owners : awaking people from fires, stopping burglaries, even activating alarms and 9-1-1. For seniors, pets also offer life saving and life extending benefits on a daily basis.

My cat was killed yesterday. I am utterly devastated. I’d rescued this gorgeous Himalayan, but in truth, she had rescued me in the process. Like most pet owners, my cat was a primary member of the family. For a person living alone, as I do, the loss of a pet is akin to losing a spouse or a child. But for an elderly person, particularly one who lives alone, such a loss can set off events that trigger emotional and physical declines, and worse.

The death of a pet can elicit complete despair, a flood of memories of other losses, of guilt, and of the recognition of one’s own mortality. People who do not understand the depth of connection of that pet-human relationship often say the most ignorant, painful things: “You can get another one,” “It’s easier now that you won’t have worry about her,” or worse, “But it was just a cat.”

The best veterinarian I ever had treated the human more than the animals. I’d gone to him for a second opinion when the previous vet recommended a very expensive and invasive surgery on my 17 ½ year old Maine Coon. I was clearly in denial about Pablo’s health, but also very depressed by my inability to afford such treatment. The new vet glanced at the records and test results I’d brought along, but was really examining me. He gently explained the missed diagnosis of terminal kidney disease. Then he let me know about all types of organizations that can help with expenses, and more importantly, with grief.

Seniors who have pets need to be thought of as a partnership when the care needs of one or the other advance. For seniors on limited incomes, numerous non-profit and government organizations offer assistance with vaccinations and veterinary care, pet food, dog walking, and even low/no-cost adoptions. Adult children and friends considering residential long term care options for their loved one need to recognize that separating the senior from their pet may be as painful as separating two spouses.

Recognizing these facts, continuing care residential communities (CCRCs), assisted living communities, adult family homes, and even Alzheimer’s specialty homes are increasingly accommodating of pets, although opposition still remains due in part to sanitation and allergy issues. Some opposition is due to worry what they might do with the pet should the owner pass away first. Fortunately, many care homes agree, in advance, to keep and care for the animal, which often becomes a part of that community and is loved by many. Numerous animal advocate and shelter organizations are now offering innovative programs, from “foster care” by carefully screened families to senior-pets-for-seniors programs that place older pets with another senior.

We at Concierge Care Advisors share the pet-human bond and can provide seniors and their families’ advice and guidance in this journey. With prescreened animal professionals and long term care communities, we can help plan and keep those companionship bonds strong and ensure the quality of life for all.

For more information:
Pets for the Elderly Foundation
Pets Programs for Low Income Elders
Healthy Pet (Veterinarians) Pets for Seniors