Growing up, there was an older woman who lived down the street from me. Her name was Jane, and she was probably the only adult I ever called by her first name when I was a child. She was older in that faded glamour sort of way, and to me, she seemed mysterious—even exotic. This feeling was heightened by the two tiny dogs that she took everywhere. In my memory they’re little toy spaniels, but that might be due to the intervention of years.
I remember asking her why they were her constant companions, and she told me that since her kids had moved away and her husband had “moved on,” that the dogs were her closest family. This made perfect sense to me. While older kids, and even my parents, would sometimes make under-the-breath comments on how she talked to them, with wisdom yet untampered by cynicism, I never questioned treating dogs like friends.
Now we know my childish knowledge was actually correct: pet ownership is an enormous blessing for older adults. It relieves loneliness (which, in turn, improves health, decreasing risk of death by 26%), encourages activity, and promotes responsibility and structure. For some older adults, though, taking care of a pet while aging at home can be too much. They crave the companionship, but aren’t able to give the pet the care it needs.
That’s where caregivers can come in. Caregivers should be prepared to also be petsitters, if need be. It might seem like an extra role, but it really comes down to how we define “care.” Pets bring happiness and love to aging adults. Facilitating that, so older loved ones can experience the love of an animal in their life, can be the ultimate expression of giving care.
How Caregivers Can Enable Senior Pet Ownership
There are many benefits for older adults when it comes to owning pets, but some of the basic tasks of caring for an animal may be too difficult for some aging adults, negating the benefits. That’s where caregivers can step in:
Establishing a Routine
“Routine” often has a negative connotation, depending on the emphasis. It can mean “boring,” but it doesn’t have to. Boredom, for older adults, often comes from not having a routine, from having little to look forward to. Owning a pet, especially one that needs attention, can change that. If there are regular feeding schedules, it may become a highlight of their day. A caregiver can help establish a schedule, which also helps drive the sense of purpose many people lack after retirement. Pet ownership already creates purpose; having a schedule means sticking to it.
For the caregiver, make sure that the schedule is based around other activities: doctor’s appointments, social day programs, meals, and medicine intake. A pet can make a day more full, but it’s up to the caregiver to make sure that everything can be taken care of. And the best part is, a routine can lead to more adventures.
Part of your New Year’s pledge may have been to establish more adventures with the older adult you care for. A pet, especially one that needs to be walked, can help. It allows for people to get outdoors, to meet others (at the local dog park, maybe), and to get needed exercise. Remember that you might be the one doing to actual dog walking, and you should be open to that accommodation. If your older adult is in a wheelchair, you can perhaps find a way to push the chair while they handle the leash. Getting outside for exercise is great for health and for socialization: having a pet not only encourages more adventures, it almost demands them.
Keeping the Joy of Companionship
It’s true that having a pet is a lot of work. They need to be fed, cleaned up after, and kept busy. The most fun ones can also be the most duty-heavy (although if a person wants to love a turtle, that’s pretty easy). It might be extra work for you as a caregiver, but taking care of some of the more challenging aspects of pet ownership can help the older adult revel in the good parts, the parts that bring them joy. The parts that bring unconditional love into their lives.
Accepting the Realities of Pet Ownership
If you’re talking to your aging loved one about getting a pet, there are a few things you need to ask and to keep in mind:
- Do either of you have allergies?
- How will any disabilities impact the way the pet can be cared for?
- Can a schedule be established where a pet that needs to be taken outside in the morning and at night can have its needs met? That is, will there be someone there early and late in the day?
- What is the pet’s lifespan? This may be grim, but you might not want to get a pet, like a bird, that lives a long life.
- How much will care cost?
These are all serious considerations, and they might mean that instead of getting two Bengal tigers, you get a housecat. But that’s part of the fun. Having an honest conversation between caregiver and patient about time, responsibilities—and possibilities—establishes more trust and more connection. You can help bring more joy, more love, into someone’s life. In the end, isn’t that what giving care is all about?
I don’t know what became of Jane. We moved to a different neighborhood, and she became one of those people who make a firm impression on a fleeting childhood, fading into fond memory. But I hope that she kept her best friends, and I hope she had people in her life who realized her bond with her dogs wasn’t eccentricity, but genuine love. I hope they helped her take care of them, so that she could live a long and happy life, surrounded by love and companionship, both human and animal.
Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources to help older adults and their caregivers live independently, with dignity and adventure. Get in touch with us today to learn more.