While animals make great companions for people of any age, pets can have important benefits for seniors. Many seniors have found a way to combat isolation -- by adopting a pet through their local shelter.
When Marjorie Smith walked into the Idaho Humane Society in Boise two years ago, the 72-year-old was struggling with the recent loss of her son and the 9-11 tragedy.
Like thousands of other seniors, Smith was battling a problem that threatened to consume her. The retired secretary wasn't suffering from cancer or heart disease, but from loneliness. Divorced and living alone, Smith was looking for something, or someone, to help her.
Gus had been waiting patiently, but his family still hadn't come back for him. A ten-year-old Scottish terrier, he had spent his entire life with the same family. But once the children had grown up and moved away, Gus was forced to spend his days alone. His family felt that they didn't have the time to take care of him anymore and decided to relinquish Gus to the local shelter.
It's a common scenario all across America. Divorce ends marriages, children move, family and friends pass away and, as we age, loneliness and depression become all too familiar. But many seniors have found a way to combat isolation -- by adopting a pet through their local shelter.
When Smith saw Gus walk into the Humane Society's waiting room, she was impressed with his attitude. "He walked with dignity and made me smile," she says. Smith adopted Gus on the spot, and they became fast friends, spending their days taking walks around the neighborhood and lounging in the rocking chair. "We bonded immediately, and I have never been sorry for a moment that I went to the shelter that evening," says Smith.
"Emotionally, pets can bring new meaning and purpose to the life of a senior who is living far away from friends or family," says Kelly Connolly, HSUS issues specialist for companion animals. "The unconditional love and commitment to their owners is almost like free therapy. They can act as friends, entertainers, and warm, fuzzy bundles of joy. Having a pet in an elderly person's life can offer them a sense of well being, a sense of encouragement, and even a reason for living. Being responsible for another life often gives new meaning to the lives of those who are living alone or far from loved ones. Caring for and providing a loving home to a companion animal also helps elderly people to remain active and stay healthy."
Gus has made Smith a believer in the power of pet companionship. "He has changed [my life] completely. I'm sure he has added years to my life. I have found that adopting a pet can help a person after a death of a loved one or just being lonely. I can't imagine what it would be like without him. I am lonely only if I have to leave him at the vet for a short time."
In addition to easing loneliness, pets may also make seniors healthier. Studies suggest that contact with animals can lower blood pressure. Research also indicates a link between pet ownership and an increased survival rate for cardiac patients. Other potential health benefits can include decreased stress, reduced bone loss, lowered cholesterol levels, and improved blood circulation.
"For years, it's been medically documented that companion animals -- such as dogs, cats and rabbits -- help people live longer and healthier lives," says Connolly.
Although animals make great companions for people of any age, pets can have important benefits for seniors. But before adopting a new companion, seniors need to understand the amount of dedication that goes into caring for an animal. Seniors need to be sure they have the time and the means to care for a pet, both physically and financially.
It's also important to consider the kind of pet to adopt. Animal care professionals often advise seniors to consider adopting an adult dog or cat. An older animal may be a better fit for their lifestyle than a puppy or kitten.
"Unlike a puppy or kitten, adult animals are more likely to be calm, already housetrained and less susceptible to unpredictable behavior," says Connolly. "Older pets are often more easily physically managed by seniors than a stronger, more excitable younger animal."
Once the decision to adopt a pet has been made there are many programs out there to help. As more people discover the benefits of animal companionship for older Americans, resources and programs have emerged to make finding and keeping a new pet much easier.
The first place to which seniors should turn is their local shelter. Adopting from a shelter has its advantages. Not only do they have a great selection of adult animals for adoption, but they also have purebred animals. In fact, on average, purebreds account for about 25% of a shelter's dog population. If you have a specific breed in mind that's not available at your local shelter, breed placement groups (often referred to as "rescues") are also a reliable option.
Adopting from a shelter is not only a great way to help out a homeless animal, but it's also cost-effective. Adoption fees, which are extremely low compared with the cost of purchasing an animal from a pet store or breeder, typically include vaccinations as well as spay or neuter procedures.
Another advantage of shelters is that many of them offer senior programs. The Idaho Humane Society, where Smith adopted Gus, has placed thousands of pets with seniors through a program called Pets for People, which waives the adoption fee, spay/neuter charge and initial vaccination when a senior adopts an adult pet.
Check with your local shelter to see if it has a seniors program. If not, shelters can still offer a wealth of information and support to new pet owners.
"Was it fate that brought [Gus and I] together at the shelter that day?" Smith wonders. Maybe the stars were aligned just right or it was the pair's lucky day¿or maybe seniors and pets are just meant to be together.
Rebecca Simmons is the Outreach Communications Coordinator for the Companion Animals section of The HSUS.