Older Adults and Pets: A Match Made in Heaven
Pets can be an important part of an older person’s life. Personally, I favor dogs for this job. Other pets (cats, birds, guinea pigs) can be good companions as well, but in my opinion nothing beats the unconditional love one gets from a dog.
In addition to the 24/7 companionship one gets from a dog, there are other benefits. Dogs must go out several times a day to do their business and get some exercise. That is a responsibility that dog guardians (I don’t like the term “owner”) must carry out every day. Getting out and about with your dog puts you in the social circle of other dog guardians and you always have something to talk about together.
I have one 70-year old friend who takes her dog to the local dog park daily. Sometimes her husband accompanies her, but more often than not, it’s just her and her dog. She has been going to the same dog park for six years now and she is part of a strong community that has formed there. In addition to tending their dogs, this group organizes dinners together, goes to wine tastings, and meets up at movie theaters for an evening out. Since she retired it has become her strongest social attachment.
Older adults in most independent and assisted living communities can also keep dog companions with them. When I visit these communities, I see more and more small dogs being walked around the property, their people watching proudly as they do their business, socialize with other dogs, and obey their guardian’s commands. Some communities are even putting in small dog parks for supervised off-leash play. There are very few senior communities left in the U.S. that don’t allow their residents to have pets. It is considered by most to be an important part of the therapy provided.
Of course, keeping a dog demands a level of ability that includes being mobile enough to clean up after the animal and fill their food and water bowls. Plus, pets incur expenses. Not only must they be fed, they also require regular vet visits, and occasional maintenance (e.g. grooming, teeth cleaning), plus they occasionally get sick and have to be treated or medicated. These are all considerations for those on a budget, but usually the expenses incurred are not exorbitant. Pet insurance may be a consideration, though it gets mixed reviews.
Are you too old to adopt? I’m not sure there is any firm upper boundary on pet adoption. I’ve known several 80-somethings that have adopted a small dog. Yes, your pet may outlive you, and that would mean a transition for the animal, but most dogs and other domestic animals are pretty flexible. It may take them awhile to adjust to a new home, just as it will when you bring them into yours, but they do adjust. And remember, I am not suggesting adopting a puppy. Very young dogs can be too much for even the strongest senior. I suggest adopting a dog that is at least a year old, and if you are already in your 80s, a five or six-year old might be your best bet.
Where can you find your new best friend? Try a shelter near you or a rescue group in your area. There is a website, www.Petfinders.com, that is very easy to navigate and most of the rescue groups use it to advertise their adoptable animals. There is also an organization called Pets for the Elderly that fulfills their mission by helping seniors adopt suitable pets, while also rescuing animals from shelters. Their clients must be 60 or older to qualify. Through their foundation, financial aid is available for pre-adoption veterinary exams, spay and neuter operations, and some of the additional adoption fees for low-income seniors.
One final note: it’s not generally a good idea to bring an animal into someone else’s life, especially an older adult, without their involvement. Ideally, the senior initiates the process and is involved throughout, allowing the true guardian to bond with their new housemate right from the start.