Animals can enhance the lives of people of all ages, but they can be particularly beneficial in the lives of seniors. Research shows that companion animals, such as cats and dogs, can help improve physical and mental health, lower stress levels and blood pressure, combat loneliness, open opportunities for interacting with others and reduce depression. They can also simply help seniors stay youthful.
"The most common reason seniors want pets is for companionship," says Kelly Hill, programs manager for companion animal services at PAWS animal shelter. "The kids and grandkids are part of their life, but not on a daily basis, so there can be that loneliness and wanting to have companionship. And often a pet is the best way to fulfill that."
Hill says dogs are good for getting seniors out walking and keeping them engaged in their community. Cats, she says, are good for curling up on your lap and quality one-on-one time.
"Anytime you are touching an animal and getting that kind of interaction it releases endorphins and creates a positive experience for people," she says.
PAWS shelters offer a discount for seniors, with an adoption fee of $35. Hill says people can look on their website for an updated list of adoptable animals, or conduct a search on a site like Petfinder, where you can type in the age and type of animal you want, and the area you live in, and it will list matching animals.
"And calling in and asking questions about a certain animal is always a good idea, too, before you drive all the way down and meet the animal," she says.
Hill says that when selecting an animal, seniors need to consider what fits best for their life and daily routine. An active senior might select a middle-aged dog that they can take out for nice walks or a kitten who loves to play, and a senior with a less active lifestyle or limited mobility might want an older dog that doesn't require as much exercise or an adult cat. And it's important to keep in mind the food and veterinary costs and daily care associated with an animal.
Laurie Macrae, 70, has had her black and white mixed-breed female dog, Spot, for 15 years. In their earlier years together, Macrae says, she and Spot would take long walks together, and she even taught her pup some tricks.
"She is very intelligent and responsive, so it was easy to teach her sit, lie down, roll over," she says.
Macrae recently underwent hip surgery, and while she was recovering, she paid a girl in her neighborhood to walk Spot for six months. She has since resumed walking Spot herself but admits their walks have now become quite brief.
"We have grown old together, but in a healthy way," says Macrae, who lives alone. "Both of us have slowed way down."
These days Macrae and Spot enjoy hanging out and snuggling up together on a chair.
Macrae, who says she has had pets during many periods of her life, says Spot has served not only as a companion but also as a guardian to her over the years. But she has decided that Spot will be her last pet.
"When Spot dies, I will not get another dog," she says. "Pets are good friends but also a huge responsibility."
Hill says it's a good idea for seniors wanting pets to have the support of other family members who can step in if additional help is required or can take over the care of the pet completely if need be.
"If something changes in a senior's life, if they go from living at home to moving into assisted care living, is the family ready to assist with that process with the animal and where does the animal go?" she says. "Make sure to have a plan in place for the future."
"Owning a pet is such a rewarding experience," Hill says. "There's really nothing better than finding that new companion in a shelter or your local rescue and helping those animals. It just goes such a long way."