by Sarah Shilhavy
Health Impact News

Healthcare for the elderly is a big deal, as are the issues surrounding them and the places they live. As we have reported here at Health Impact News previously, over-medication of the elderly in care facilities such as nursing homes is an all too real issue that many face today. About 47.5% (997,500) of the elderly in the US are on antidepressants which come with side effects such as decrease in bone marrow density, falls, and fractures. Overall, about 304,983 nursing home residents were given antipsychotic drugs, of which 88% were for dementia. Additionally, 10 of 24 health warnings issued by drug companies and regulatory agencies on the use of antipsychotic drugs were specifically for the elderly and the increased risk of stroke and/or death. (Source.)

Yet there are better ways of dealing with common health issues for the elderly besides antipsychotic drugs. Animals such as dogs, cats, and other domesticated animal companions are very common in many households across the globe as a part of the human family. What you may not realize however is how much of a powerfully positive influence these animals can be in one’s life, especially for the elderly.

Pets have been known to:

Improve Mental Health

It’s hard to feel lonely, depressed, upset, stressed, or bored when there’s a happy, cheerful, non-judgmental animal always happy to see you. Touch, another form of communication and known stress reducer, is also used more when interacting with animals. “Pets and Mental Health” by Odean Cusack illustrates a powerful example of the effect pets can have on one’s mental health: an elderly man lost his wife, and soon after, his cat. As a result he was alone for most of the time and not eating enough to stay healthy (a common effect of depression). However, after the adoption of a new cat, both his mood and eating habits improved quickly.

Boost Sociability

Gram and gramps, mom or dad may dislike too many visitors (or people in general), but the common love of animals can bridge the awkward social gaps. Studies have shown that having animals in institutional facilities with the elderly encourages them to talk more, smile, and be more alert and attentive.

Reduce Doctor’s Visits

“In the Presence of Animals” by Sarah Burke noted that nursing home residents who had interaction with companion animals had fewer doctor’s visits than their fellow residents without animals in their lives. A positive outlook is crucial to health, and pets have been known to improve attitudes and reduce stress. In a 10 month study in which participants acquired a new pet, they reported a significant improvement in minor health issues in the first month with their new animals. Dog owners held on to these improvements for the entire 10 months of the study.

Improve Cardiovascular Health

Multiple studies and correlations on the connection between the heart health of people with pets and those without have been carried out and noted. A 3-year study the Baker Medical Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia with 5,741 participants showed that pet owners had less known risk factors for heart disease, including low blood pressure.

With my 8-week-old ginger kitten sprawled out like a limp noodle in my lap in true complete relaxation cat-fashion, spreading warmth and purrs and observing the obvious joy pets can bring to people just by being present, it’s hard to not believe that animals can have a real, lasting, and healing touch on human lives.

In the video above, residents of Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley, a nursing home and rehab facility, get to interact with farm animals living on the spacious 43 acre grounds in rural Littleton, Mass. From the video:

“You get your mind off of the things that are bothering you as they will in any kind of a situation like this. It is a form of therapy, I think, that’s unique to here and very, very beneficial,” Stockler said.

So how did Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley come to be like this?

“It started with two golden retrievers,” said Ellen Levinson, who, has for 17 years, played the role of executive director and Dr. Doolittle.

“It’s not home, but we want them to have something to think about besides, I’m stuck here and I don’t feel well, and I want to go home,” Levinson said.

The animals also help on the memory support unit, a novel approach to treatment for Alzheimer’s patients.

“The animals are part of an attempt to find alternatives to drugs. What’s going to relax this person, what’s going to distract him so he can stop the pacing,” she said.

Other examples of pet therapy for the elderly:


“Psychiatric Abuse of the Elderly.” CCHR International.
http://www.cchrint.org/issues/protectelderly/#Treatment Facts

The Hayworth Press, New York. “Pets And Mental Health.” Odean Cusack.

McCall’s Magazine. “A Pet a Day.” Sandra Y. Lee.

U.S. News & World Report “In the Presence of Animals.” Sarah Burke.

InterActions. “What You Already “Knew” – Fluffy And Fido Are Good For You.” Maria Kale.

“Does pet ownership reduce your risk for heart disease?” InterActions.

“The Healing Power of Pets for Elderly People.” Barbara Ballinger.

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