It is a truth universally known that humans are obsessed with animals. Dogs, cats, elephants, hamsters… whatever the creature, we’re interested. We’ll spend hours debating the merits of one furry companion over another, friendships made and broken over whether someone is a “cat person” or not and there are animals who have their own celebrity status (we’re looking at you Doug The Pug). We are a species who can’t get enough of every other species. In recent years though, we have started to realise just how animals can help our society, with the introduction of guide dogs; so now we’re exploring the valuable relationship between animals and the elderly.
As we grow older we enter a new stage of our lives where any children have now grown and flown the nest and retirement has ended the daily routine of a working lifestyle. It can be an emotionally complicated time, as we all look forward to the “carefree” ideal of retirement, but the reality is that older people can feel lost and without a purpose. By introducing a pet to the household though, older people can enjoy an increased social interaction and physical activity from walking the dog, taking the cat to the vets, going out to pet shops for hamster toys… the avenues are endless, but the result is proven: animals help you interact with society and maintain a degree of structure to your life.
Animals have been proven to help both the mental and physical health of the elderly. People suffering from dementia have noticed that the benefits of owning a cat or dog goes beyond the oxytocin release from stroking them. One woman noted that owning a cat had made her dementia-afflicted mother more focussed, making her less prone to confusion and feeling detached. If an elderly person used to work in an intense, high-powered environment, the adjustment can feel like things are now moving at a snail’s pace for them. A pet dog has been proven to help that, as certain breeds are playful and lively, providing a degree of energy that a person may feel they are missing in their life. This means the person is less likely to feel lonely and despondent about their new circumstances, as their four-legged companion lifts their spirits. With so many older people suffering from mental health issues (brought about by illness or circumstance), the positive effects of animal ownership during the swan song stage of life on their mood and attitude to life are undeniable.
Additionally, there have been many documented cases of dogs being able to smell out stress, low blood sugar (vital for diabetics) and even seizures. With this in mind, many families look for either retired guide dogs for their relative or ones who went through similar training; so that they know their loved one’s pet has potentially life saving skills. It’s a great idea really and kills two birds with one stone: dogs who were raised to be useful and four-legged carers retain that purpose, while the elderly person gets a friend who knows how to cohabit with more vulnerable people.
It’s not just dogs though that have been proven to have a positive impact when it comes to animals and the elderly. Manchester Evening News recently reported on an unusual choice of friend for residents in care homes in Rochdale: chickens. A Greater Manchester-based charity – Crossroads Together – are working to combat depression in older people, using the medium of chickens. By giving a care home a number of chicks to raise, the residents have new lives to look after and daily jobs to keep them active. As well as feeding the chickens and caring for them, the residents will also be responsible for collecting the eggs once their feathered friends start laying. While this is a new programme, it has already been an overwhelming success and the residents are head over heels in love with the new additions to their home. Residents make a beeline for the chicken coop every day and can’t wait to care for them. As one care home manager commented, “it has been wonderful to how engaged our residents have been with the chicks since they arrived”. It seems the solution to care home depression and loneliness is to adopt a brood of chickens!
So, whether it’s furry, feathered or scaled, consider how an animal could help an elderly person in your life; or if they are not in the situation to own one, invite them on your next dog walk. Or bring your cat next time you visit your relative in a care home. Find a way to connect animals and the elderly people in your life, and soon too you’ll be realising the magnificent benefits these creatures have. After all, a dog is man’s best friend!