The Benefits of Animal Companions and Senior Living
May 5, 2014
Aging comes with many challenges. Family members, friends and professionals search for the best ways to help with the physical, emotional and mental disabilities seniors face. Among the most overlooked are the benefits of therapy animals.
What Exactly Are Therapy Animals?
They’re animals that visit nursing homes, other facilities and private homes to furnish pet therapy to seniors. They provide unconditional love and comfort on top of the traditional treatments senior receive like medications and physical therapy.
A majority of therapy animals have been specially trained by an organization. However, some are simply pets of staff, friends or family that drift informally into the role after interacting with seniors.
One common misconception is that all therapy animals are dogs. While most of these pets are canines, cats sometimes fulfill this role. A cat should be at least a year old, have a calm demeanor, love human attention, enjoy new experiences and be able to ride in a car without vomiting or growing frantic.
How Can They Help Seniors?
Pet therapy isn’t a new concept. In 1860, legendary nurse Florence Nightingale credited a small pet as often an excellent companion for someone who is sick, particularly with a chronic condition.
An attraction between seniors and pets isn’t surprising, given that 62 percent of U.S. households own at least one pet. Half of owners consider their pets as much a part of their family as any human member is.
Therapy animals can help with a number of disabilities and needs seniors face:
- Walking the animal provides needed exercise.
- Interaction reduces stress, which lowers blood pressure and promotes a normal heart rate.
- Bonding encourages seniors to start moving, then stay active, increasing their physical skills.
- Looking forward to pet companionship diminishes senior loneliness, depression and anxiety that accompany the loss of independence, decline in health or the death of a loved one.
- Feeling the responsibility of caring for an animal fosters self-confidence and mental sharpness.
- Sharing thoughts and feelings with a non-judgmental animal increases socialization with other seniors.
Is Pet Therapy a Good Fit?
Whether a senior is in a residential facility or at home, the first consideration should be whether he or she has an aversion to cats or dogs. Step two is ruling out allergies. An important safety question to ask a facility with a pet therapy program is whether all animals wear harnesses and leashes.
A senior still living at home might profit from owning a pet. Before making a match, however, make sure that plenty of help is available for physical care of the pet.
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