Pets are proven stress relievers for seniors, among having other benefits such as promoting social interactions. It is important, however, to know that nursing homes have policies and guidelines in place to keep seniors safe.
Pets for Seniors in Nursing Homes Provide Companionship
Even under the most ideal circumstances, adjusting to life in a nursing home can be difficult. This is particularly the case for seniors who have always lived independently. The transition to a nursing home can mean separation from friends and cherished, routine activities like clubs, church or temple, and social gatherings.
The transition and resulting loneliness can be offset with the addition of a therapy pet. One example is a woman with dementia living in a Lansing, Michigan nursing home. Visits by a golden retriever named Fletcher, and a stuffed animal resembling Fletcher that the woman could keep, dramatically improved her outlook and engagement, the Lansing State Journal reports.
Similarly, a senior living community in Springfield, Ohio, added a dog park for its residents and their pets.
“It brings such joy,” Mercy Health-Oakwood Village Senior Living Executive Director Annette Turner told the Springfield News Sun. “So even if they can’t have a pet themselves, they can come appreciate and watch the pets play.”
Can I Take a Pet Into a Nursing Home?
Benefits notwithstanding, it is important that nursing homes have policies and rules in place to govern companion pets for seniors.
Some of the risks include:
- Pets like cats and dogs can easily pose a fall hazard to people with balance issues.
- Hyperactive pets, particularly dogs, can be too much for the elderly to handle.
- The costs of pets can be preventive. Some estimates place the average lifetime cost of a dog at $10,000 and a cat at $8,000.
- The elderly have thinner skin and are at a higher risk of infection from even playful nips and scratches from pets.
- The death of a pet can trigger extreme grief in a nursing home patient.
- More exotic pets like lizards commonly carry bacteria like salmonella. A lack of hand-washing hygiene can increase the risk of contracting dangerous diseases.
Health Benefits of Pets for Seniors in Nursing Homes
When properly managed and supervised, the benefits can outweigh the risks of pets for seniors.
These benefits include:
- Pets encourage activity and movement like walking dogs. This may lower blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Socialization is encouraged by owning a pet, particularly in a group home. A cat in a lap can spark interest from another resident, and dog owners can connect in a dog park, like the one in Ohio. In a home in Delray Beach, Florida, residents have collectively adopted a stray cat named Scout.
“Residents gather to pet him, discuss his care or play with him — things designed to stimulate their memories and get them out of their chairs,” the Sun-Sentinel reports.
- The mind is served as well. One-on-one interactions and the responsibility of caring for a pet engage the brain. Studies have also shown that pets bring groups together, much like the Ohio nursing home. In a study sponsored by AARP and the University of Michigan, almost 9 out of 10 pet owners say pets bring them joy and love, while 8 out of 10 say they reduce stress.
- Service dogs and emotional support animals have been shown to speed healing from emotional and physical abuse. This includes the effects of elder abuse.
Pets for Seniors in Nursing Homes: Other Options
Between the cost of care and some of the health risks, owning a pet full-time is not always an option for seniors. However, there are other options that bring many of the same benefits without the commitment.
Visiting Pets for Seniors in Nursing Homes
There are shelters and private citizens happy to share their pets with a nursing home for an hour or two. In Toledo, Ohio, Sherry Martinez sees firsthand the joy her three dogs bring when she visits nursing homes.
“They make people happy, they make them forget about emotional stress or pain,” Martinez says.
Therapy animals are the best option because they are trained specifically to interact with the public. This lowers the risk of a heavy dog knocking over an unsteady nursing home resident.
Here are some organizations that can connect you with a therapy dog:
- American Kennel Club tracks therapy dogs both by national reach and local organizations.
- Therapy Dogs International provides background information on therapy dogs and ways to connect.
- Here’s a resource on training your pup if you’re interested in providing a therapy dog to nursing homes.
Robotic Pets for Seniors
Toys may be another option for seniors, particularly those with dementia. For example, a realistic stuffed animal provides comfort without any of the responsibilities of owning a pet. Robotic pets that add another layer of realism by moving, purring, and making animal noises are also available.
Robotic pets are a common feature at Plymouth Crossings in Massachusetts, an assisted living facility for people living with dementia. The director of memory care says the fake pets are used especially for patients who are having a difficult day.
In Hong Kong, a robot baby seal responds in a realistic way to touch, light, and temperature. Caretakers remark that the patients build a relationship with the robot, and it stimulates old memories in dementia patients.
Pets Help Seniors Stay Happy and Healthy
The bottom line is that pets provide incredible benefits in nursing homes. Studies have shown seniors with pets are mentally stimulated by holding an animal and having something to care for. It also promotes social interaction, which triggers cognitive development.