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The Health Benefits of Pets for Older Adults

They reduce blood pressure, help us get exercise and brighten our outlook


When Lynette Whiteman’s youngest child went to college, Whiteman went out and got a second dog that she calls “my empty nest dog.” She wanted someone else to care for, “who loves me non-judgmentally and doesn’t mind if I’m gaining weight or getting gray.”

Whiteman may get home from work tired, but the 60-year-old resident of Toms River, N.J., says the dogs stare at her until she puts their leashes on. She walks them and always feels good afterwards.

Helping Us Stay Well After 50

Dogs are especially important for the 50 and over group. They keep people connected to their communities and keep them on the move, a vital part of staying healthy into the later years. And research shows that having a dog promotes walking, considered the best form of exercise for people in this age group.

“People walk because they want their dog to get exercise, and without realizing it, they get theirs,” says Rebecca Johnson, a nurse gerontologist and director of the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction, a collaboration between the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine and the Sinclair School of Nursing.

For older people unable to care for a dog, Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey matches therapy dogs with homebound older adults for weekly visits.

“It’s vitally important to stay as physically active as possible, not only from the point of view of preventing illness, but also because of the social benefits,” Johnson says. “Dog owners are less likely to have loneliness and depression than those who don’t. And when they interact with a dog on a walk, it draws them into the moment and they forget their aches and pains.”

The Benefits of Dog-Walking

Gloria and Jim Ross, 80-year-old retirees in Waverly, Pa., say their standard white poodle Louie is the reason they walk between two to three miles a day. “He gets you up in the morning and he’s always in good spirits whether we are or not. He brings a smile to your face,” Jim Ross says.

A 2010 study, “Exercise Motivation and Fitness through Dog Walking Among Older Adults,” for which Johnson was the lead author, showed that a group who walked with shelter dogs improved their normal walking speed and distance. They were also more likely to go for a walk than those who walked with a human companion and those in a control group. In fact, the human companions often discouraged each other from walking.

And a survey article last year in The Gerontologist, “Dog Walking, the Human–Animal Bond and Older Adults’ Physical Health,” concluded, “Dog walking was associated with lower body mass index, fewer activities of daily living limitations, fewer doctor visits and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise.”

Merely Owning a Pet Also Helps

Research also shows that pet owners (primarily of dogs and cats) can decrease their risk of coronary heart disease, the most common cause of death of men and women 60 years and older.

According to the American Heart Association, studies have shown that pet owners have lower blood pressure and smaller increases in heart rate and blood pressure in response to stress, lower resting baseline heart rates and blood pressure, significantly smaller increases in heart rate and blood pressure in response to stress, and faster recovery from stress.

In one early study, Erika Friedmann, professor of organizational systems and adult health at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, even found higher survival rates of heart attack patients who owned pets.

Good for Mental Health, Too

Sally Morgan, a physical therapist for people and animals in West Hatfield, Mass., elaborates on the social and emotional benefits for people over 50. “They may find themselves living alone for the first time in years after a spouse dies, a divorce, or even simply after the children move out of the house,” she says. “Group dog walks and other events keep people integrated in the community.”

She adds: “People over 50 are more keyed into their animals because their lives are settling down, there are no kids in the house and the dog is always with you and you’re not running to soccer games and building a career.” s

Companions in Dark Times

Morgan, 59, falls into this age group herself and has first-hand knowledge of another way that pets help their people: comforting them in difficult times.

When she had chemotherapy for breast cancer eight years ago, her hospital allowed her to have her dog with her. And when she had a reaction to the drugs while getting prepped for radiation, her Welsh corgi, Comet, calmed her down by lying in the bed with her.

“He was important to my getting well,” Morgan says.

Across the ocean in London, a dog also helped Bridget Irving heal — from the trauma of a death in the family and a failed relationship. The 53-year-old illustrator, who also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, adopted a neglected, older, one-eyed rescue dog — a Yorkshire terrier named Ben.

“I really began to heal mentally when Ben arrived,” Irving says. “He changed my focus because he needed me to do the right thing for him every day. ”

Animals and Hormones

The healing power of pets has a scientific basis, too, with studies showing that this type of interaction releases the anti-stress, calming hormone oxytocin in animals and humans.

Pioneering South African researchers Johannes Odendaal and Roy Meintjes first demonstrated the reciprocal release of endorphins (oxytocin and dopamine) in studies they conducted with humans and dogs in 2003. Petting dogs also results in decreased levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol.

And Swedish researcher Linda Handlin demonstrated that when women interacted with their dogs, the oxytocin-promoting bonding was similar to that produced when mothers breastfed their newborns.

For older people unable to care for a dog, Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey matches therapy dogs with homebound older adults for weekly visits. Whiteman, the executive director, says the group partnered with a local university to measure blood pressure after the visits. They found that blood pressure in the older adults decreased, as described in a study in the Journal of Community Health Nursing in 2016.

“Anecdotally, we see such a huge improvement in mood when our dogs visit,” says Caregiver Volunteers Executive Director Whiteman. “They adopt them like a grandchild.”

Dogs Aren’t the Only Helpers

Although research has focused on dogs, experts see some of the same benefits with owners of cats, rabbits, birds, fish and other pets.

“Cats get a bad rap,” says Beverly Roberts, a 64-year-old registered nurse who lives in Somers, Conn. She and her husband George have a Maine coon mix, Anthony, and a regular tabby, Boots. “Cats are very independent, and sometimes you feel they’re the boss of the house,” Roberts says. “But they can sense feelings. They can be very aloof, but not to us. If we’re sick and in bed, they watch over us. And when they sit on your lap, you feel like your stress is being released.”

With all this in mind, many retirement communities have pet-friendly policies.

For example, at TigerPlace, operated by  by Americare in affiliation with the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing and College of Veterinary Medicine, residents who want to keep their pets get visits from pet care assistants each week and have access to veterinary care. The facility also has a program through which animals are brought to the community weekly.

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By Ronni Gordon
Ronni Gordon is a freelance writer and editor and a former newspaper reporter. She has written for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the alumni quarterlies of Smith and Vassar and elsewhere.

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