Labs & Seniors

Labrador retriever with his familyAmericans are used to learning new terms and definitions which have become popular throughout our history. From the days of the Roman Empire, veni, vidi,vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) has carried its own distinctive meaning. Give me liberty or give me death; The buck stops here; Yada, yada, yada; The Graying of America. It is the latter phrase that brings the subject of this article to the forefront.

At present, people 50 years or older make up 24 percent of the population of the United States. According to the National Institute on Aging, by 2050, this number will likely reach 30 million. Books, movies, television programs and dozens of research projects are focusing on the many challenges and adjustments that will be forthcoming as a result of the irreversible speed of this graying roller coaster on which we are fellow adventurers.

Social Security, Medicare, public support programs, church and synagogue activities, need for part-time employment, and health care are a few of the most prominent areas of concern for leaders in government and civic roles. As we face these situations as a nation, we also face the necessity as families and individuals to provide the most practical and economically sound benefits for our own friends and family members who are entering this uncharted terrain. One of the best solutions for the aging population is to provide a dog for the persons involved.

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in May, 1999 demonstrated that independently living seniors that have pets tend to have better physical health and mental well being than those who don’t. They’re more active, cope better with stress, and have better overall health. A 1997 study showed that elderly dog owners had significantly lower blood pressure overall than their contemporaries without them.  We have all experienced the joy of a dog wagging his tail when we approach.  Having  that furry pooch sit down at our feet and nuzzle close to us makes us feel important and needed.  These are just simple things that occur on a daily basis.  Medical professionals have done research to show that all pets, but especially dogs, have notably positive affects on senior citizens. Scientists have started to explore the complex way animals affect human emotions and physiology. The resulting studies have shown that owning and handling dogs significantly benefits health. In fact, pets may help elderly owners live longer, healthier, and more enjoyable lives.

Man and woman with Labrador retriever puppyThere are a number of explanations for exactly how dogs accomplish all these health benefits. First of all, dogs need walking, feeding, grooming, fresh water, and they encourage lots of playing and petting. All of these activities require some action from owners. Even if it’s just getting up to let a dog out a few times a day or brushing its hair, or going for a walk, any activity can benefit the cardiovascular system and help keep joints limber and flexible. Consistently performing this kind of minor exercise can keep pet owners able to carry out the normal activities of daily living. Pets may also aid seniors simply by providing some physical contact. Studies have shown that when people pet animals, their blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature decrease.

Many benefits of pet ownership are less tangible, though. Pets are an excellent source of companionship, for example. They can act as a support system for older people who don’t have any family or close friends nearby to act as a support system. One recent study showed that people with dogs were better able to remain emotionally stable during crises than those without. Canine companions can also work as a buffer against social isolation. Often the elderly have trouble leaving home, so they don’t have a chance to see many people. Dogs give them a chance to interact. This can help combat depression, one of the most common medical problems facing seniors today. The responsibility of caring for an animal may also give the elderly a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. They also help seniors stick to regular routines of getting up in the morning, buying groceries, and going outside, which help motivate them to eat and sleep regularly and well.

Direct Benefits that Dogs can Bring Seniors

Dogs have always been regarded as best friends to man. Their loyalty and a number of other character traits render them to be of innumerable use to human beings. From being used as guard-dogs at home to helping the visually challenged, they always manage to be of some use to each of us. One of the remarkable uses of dogs is as companions for senior citizens. It has been discovered that the key to a longer and healthier life is often as simple as companionship. The companion dog can immensely improve the physical and mental health of senior citizens.

Another important benefit that dogs can provide to their senior citizen owners is relief from boredom. The dogs help to bring out the natural ability to love in human beings. Taking care of a dog gives one a great deal of joy and satisfaction. Older people greatly value their friendship with their dogs. This greatly improves their emotional health. Furthermore, it helps people to overcome one of the greatest nuisances of old age, boredom. The responsibility of taking care of the dog who is dependent on them gives the older adult a reason to live life meaningfully. As far as the dog, having such good companionship from an owner is very good for their overall pet health.  Dogs are especially responsive to conversation–specifically, tone of voice.  The voice is a large part of training the dog.  It’s helpful that the dog is so responsive to conversation, since the elderly have a need for talking.  When the senior citizen has no humans to converse with, talking with their dog is a great substitute.

Couple with yellow Labrador retriever puppyDogs encourage their owners to go outdoors and get involved in more physical activity.  Dogs enjoy getting their senior owners to go outside, take a walk and remain physically more active. This helps to improve the physical health of senior citizens. A dog as sedentary as a lap dog can also help to greatly help to improve the health of their senior citizen owners as taking care of a pet dog involves a fair amount of physical activity.  With the progress of medical science, the concept of therapy dogs has come into prominence. Studies have found that activities such as petting the dogs can lower heart rate and blood pressure, release feel good hormones such as endorphins and most importantly help the older people to gain a new view of  life. Having a pet dog brings out the natural ability to nurture and love. Senior citizens get a lot of satisfaction and joy from taking care of a pet and the pet loves them unconditionally.  This love and acceptance can give a senior a great sense of self-esteem and responsibility.  The pets lower the stress and anxiety levels of their owners. Having a dog also helps to counter depression by giving them enthusiasm to live their life.

Living a longer life may be just as simple as getting a dog. Studies have found that pet ownership has a direct correlation in the number of years that you will live. This is not the only benefit that can be found from having a dog, however. Recuperating from illness or injury is made much quicker and more efficient with the companionship of a pet as well. This is why they tend to be a great choice for senior citizens.

In addition to all the benefits as mentioned above, having a pet dog has certain other advantages as well. The pet dogs can act as watch dogs and thus can provide some protection to their owners. In case of an accident, the pet dogs can also alert the neighbors. The dogs add a sense of security and safety to the life of older people.

Healthy Body and Mind

A dog will not only make a good companion for sitting around the house. It can be a great encouragement to get outside and exercise as well. Senior citizens who have pets have been found to be much more active and healthy than those who do not. Having a dog helps the senior citizen to find the enthusiasm to get out of the house and walk. With a furry friend waiting by the door excited to get outside, it is hard to stay inside!

Senior citizens often have issues with depression. This is quite understandable, when you consider that they are watching their friends and family members get ill and pass away. They also live alone for the most part and may not have much contact with others.  Adding a dog to their life can give them the enthusiasm to live their life and decrease depression. A dog can also offer a sense of safety and security to their home and lifestyle.  It is a known fact that dogs have helped their masters to realize when their blood sugar is low, when they are about to have a seizure, or are having other symptoms of illness. This uncanny ability to anticipate health issues in their owner is still being researched.

In review, having a pet brings out the natural ability to nurture and love. Senior citizens get a lot of satisfaction and joy from caring for a pet and receive unconditionally love and acceptance in return. This love and acceptance can give the elderly a great sense of self-esteem and responsibility, which keeps them interested in life. Just petting a dog has been found to release those feel-good hormones, endorphins, to give a new view on life and lower heart rate and blood pressure.

Senior citizens who have pets are known for being healthier and happier. They have a responsibility for taking care of their pet and this gives them the impetus to get up every morning and live their life. It gives the individual companionship and unconditional love that can enable them to get through crises and other problems with less stress. For a senior citizen, a dog’s love and acceptance can be a priceless experience.

Charlotte Iaquinta, M.Ed.

Charlotte Iaquinta, M.Ed.

About the author: Charlotte Iaquinta, M.Ed.

Mrs. “I”, as she is affectionately known by her former students, has been a college professor for twenty-eight years, chairing the Department of Human & Family Services at Southwestern Christian University for most of those years. She has been a licensed counselor (OK) and a certified psychometrist (OK) for two decades. She has three earned Master’s Degrees, one in Higher Education, one in Psychology of Counseling and one in English as Second Language. She also has an honorary Doctorate in Family Counseling. She is currently retired from teaching and practice, enjoying her seven grandchildren.

Call Woody or Judi at (910) 462-3246 for more information.