By Sylvana Rinehart, Certified Senior Advisor at Concierge Care Advisors
Every time I pet our Portuguese Water dog’s soft hair, my blood pressure drops and I lose myself in his silkiness. We both take a deep breath and enjoy that special moment. He joined our family because of his mother, Bella, a therapy dog visiting the memory care community where I worked for many years. When Bella came, the residents smiled, some who had hardly spoken during the day would think she was the dog they had when they were young and still living with their parents. Undoubtedly pets bring a smile to one’s face, while sometimes surfacing memories of younger days. They are a calming and comforting companion in someone’s golden years. In this article I will outline the pluses and minuses of being a senior pet owner.
As an Advisor, I see many seniors who are lonely after having lost most of their friends, and those that are left tend to be homebound as well, and socially isolated. As we age, our senses become less sharp. We lose our hearing, our eye sight, and even our sense of taste, but one that remains powerful is our sense of touch. We long for touch – seniors long for touch. A pet provides comfort, distraction, socialization and exercise while helping the senior pet owner feel needed and useful. There are other unforeseen benefits as well, according toDr. Jay P. Granat, a New Jersey-based psychotherapist,“Dogs and cats live very much in the present. They don’t worry about tomorrow, which can be a very scary concept for an older person. An animal embodies that sense of here and now, and it tends to rub off on people.” I witnessed that when Bella came to the retirement home. We saw that some residents who related to her would seem to forget their anxieties and focus and nurture her as much as possible. For an animal lover like me it was heartwarming to observe.
When I first started in the field of senior care in the mid-90’s, I was trained in and followed the Eden Alternative philosophy of care, spearheaded by Dr. Bill Thomas, who brought to our attention that many seniors in nursing homes suffered from loneliness, boredom and a sense of abandonment. To counteract these three plagues as he called them, he brought in children, animals, plants and “organized chaos.” We had nursing homes and assisted living communities with one or more house pets. These pets would periodically go on R&R because they knew that their job was to be with the seniors 95 percent of the time. We brought in some unexpected fun and games to break the loneliness cycle, and everyone in the community played an important role in caring for the resident. Nowadays, most communities and Adult Family Homes intrinsically espouse this philosophy of care as they put the resident at the center of the circle, calling it resident centric care. Pets play an important part in this circle of care, bringing joy and comfort to both the seniors and the caregivers.
When my father was nearing the end of his life due to a stroke, he would periodically ask me if our beloved German Shepherd “Mate” would die before him. It would break my heart because Mate was elderly and arthritic, and I prayed that he would be there for my father, which luckily he was while he was still cognitive. I sometimes have a client with an elderly pet and should there be a transition to another living arrangement we discuss the pros and cons of moving the pet, as well weighing all options and possible scenarios. Unfortunately, there are some situations in which it would be unwise to take the pet. These circumstances arise when there is either significant memory impairment or frailty present.
A leading orthopedic surgeon once told me in passing that many of his operations were due to tripping over little dogs. Leashes, bending over to lay food out, and cleaning litter boxes all can expose a senior to falling and getting hurt. Some pet-friendly communities will allocate a staff member to help in caring for the pet and it is then added to the resident’s care plan. I have also witnessed many staff members taking it upon themselves to care for the animal once the resident is no longer capable of doing so. I would suggest that family members stay attentive to their loved one and to the pet and its care, always keeping an open conversation with the community’s management as the pet could quickly become a source of friction unbeknownst to the resident. Most Adult Family Homes will not take in a pet, but sometimes, if the pet is hypoallergenic like Bella was and non-shedding, they will check with the residents’ families to see if they have no objection to having a new resident with a pet.
My family and I are very fond of animals and big believers of pets for senior adults to keep them company and to keep them engaged while still at home. As an Advisor, we are always looking down the road for our clients and planning for the unforeseen. Sometimes a live pet is not the best companion during a transition. The good news is that there are other kinds of “furry friends.” Stay tuned!