Older adults - particularly if they are struggling to make ends meet - are at high risk of illness and emotional disorders, the effects of which can be greatly reduced by pet ownership.
In a paper published in the journal Activities, Adaption & Aging, researchers review the literature on pet ownership by older adults and, after outlining the potential benefits to their physical and emotional health, discuss the barriers they face in adopting pets.
Pets not only provide companionship, they can boost health in other ways, such as emotional support and increased physical activity.
However, older people face many hurdles to pet ownership: they may be worried about the cost, and whether they are physically fit enough to take care of and feed a pet. They may also worry about what might happen to their beloved companion should they become ill or die.
In their paper, to illustrate some of these barriers to pet ownership by older people, the researchers tell the story of Janet, a 75-year-old widow who is obese, has diabetes and suffers from arthritis.
Janet, who lives independently, describes herself as a cat lover. She has had many pet cats in the past and would like to have one now.
She has seen a story in the local news about an animal shelter and is thinking about adopting a cat from there, but is concerned about the financial commitment and what would happen to the cat if she became ill or passed away. She is also concerned about what the adoption fees might be and the pet deposit fee in her apartment building.
The researchers note that Janet's situation, the conflicts between her desire for a pet and her concerns, is very common. They note:
"There are many older adults who feel that they could benefit from pet ownership and there are far too many shelter animals in need of adoption. Yet barriers exist that can impede and often preclude this adoption process."
The result is a pitiful lose-lose situation: older adults are denied the potential benefits of pet ownership, and the animals stay longer in the shelter and are at greater risk of euthanasia.
Perceptions of disability may be the barrier rather than actual physical limitations
In an effort to transform this into a win-win situation, the researchers discuss what might increase the chances for older adults to become pet owners - particularly those who perceive their chronic conditions and cost as the biggest hurdles.
While acknowledging that chronic conditions like arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are rising, the authors note that these do not necessarily result in disability. Developed countries like the US may be seeing rising rates of these chronic illnesses, but levels of actual disability are falling, they add.
One explanation could be increased ways of supporting people with chronic conditions - such as the growth in home care and assistive technology. Perhaps, the authors suggest:
"The true barrier to pet ownership for older adults may lie more in the perception of disability than in the actual limitations themselves."
They also suggest that older adults may doubt their abilities, when actually, they are capable of looking after a pet. What they need is confidence and support to help them adopt a pet.
Also, they may set their heart on a pet that is more demanding - dogs need to be exercised regularly while cats do not, and guinea pigs and rabbits require even less physical care - but perhaps they could be persuaded to consider other options that are more compatible with their needs and abilities.
More creative solutions from professionals needed
The researchers suggest that health professionals and shelter professionals could work together and encourage pet adoption and even "prescribe" the right pet for the right issue - for example, to address isolation, grief or depression. Animal shelters could also set up and test programs whereby older adults could adopt pets on a trial basis, they note.
In discussing barriers related to cost, the team acknowledges that these are probably the most challenging. They urge all parties involved to come up with creative solutions. For instance, some meals on wheels programs include an option for pet meals. And perhaps, if building policies considered the benefit to older, solitary residents' mental health of having a pet, they might lower or even waive the pet deposit fee - which the authors note is perhaps the biggest barrier to pet ownership among poorer older people.
They also urge health and care professionals to include the effect of any human-animal bonds in their clients' lives when carrying out care assessments. If these were taken into account, then their potential benefit to their clients' health may be seen to be big enough to override some of the no-pet policies that seem to prevail.
While many assisted-living facilities appear to allow pets, nursing homes do not. This can cause considerable distress to an older person moving from one to the other. Perhaps policies cannot bend as far as to allow pets in the nursing homes, but care plans could include provision to continue the human-animal bond - perhaps by arranging regular visits from or to the family member or friend who has taken on the care of the pet.
The authors conclude:
"Future researchers should continue to explore the human-animal bond for older adult populations, particularly for those with cognitive, physical, and financial limitations. There is so much potential benefit here for both pets and potential pet owners."
First author Keith Anderson, from the University of Montana in Missoula, says he became interested in doing the study because:
"As a geriatric social work researcher, I've always been interested in finding creative, cost-effective ways to improve the lives and well-being of older adults.
As already mentioned, cats may be less demanding, easier and cheaper to care for than dogs, but what many owners may not realize is that cats can get stressed, especially if their routine is disturbed or they have to share the home with another cat.
Medical News Today recently reported a review by a group of veterinarians from the Autonomous University of Barcelona that discusses the causes and effects of stress in pet cats and also gives advice on how to prevent and reduce it.