Loyal Friends

By Dr. David Lipschitz

May 21, 2010 5 min read

One of the worst parts of advancing age is the gradual loss of contact with those we love. Many of us first lose our children to college and then to spouses and ultimately to grandchildren.

As we age further, some of us will become frail and dependent on others for transportation and might need help with the simple tasks of daily life. One thing leads to another, and it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid loneliness and isolation. For many, it is vitally important to fill the empty nest with the unconditional love of a pet.

My wife and I are already empty nesters, and our beautiful French bulldog, Iggy Pup, has moved squarely to the center of our household. Iggy is a constant companion. We walk him, feed him, cuddle him and endlessly dote all over him. When I go on vacation, I miss Iggy almost as much as I miss my children! He is truly an integral part of my life. I have no doubt that Iggy's unconditional love and the affection I shower on him assure me a better, less stressed and more healthful life.

The link between pets and health promotion is very clear. Many research studies show that contact with animals powerfully assists in improving the health of nursing home patients and hastens the recovery of hospitalized patients. Studies on individuals of all ages clearly show that 15 minutes of direct contact with a pet reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, improves sleep and reduces the risk of depression.

For men and women, interacting with a pet fosters nurturing, rapport, socialization, entertainment and exercise. Recent studies show that people who walk with dogs exercise more consistently and experience bigger fitness results than those who walk with two-legged friends. Dogs are more reliable, walk faster and often are more convincing enthusiasts for the regular walk.

But the most important health benefit of a pet's companionship is the physical contact and touch. Contact with a dog or a cat is safe, soothing and nonthreatening. One stroke of a cat's back or the touch of a cold puppy nose and, out of nowhere, unhappy patients smile, unwind and feel a deep sense of gratitude and contentment.

Pets of all kinds are particularly important to older people who live alone or who reside in nursing homes. Recent research published in Occupational Therapy International showed that contact with pets and the resulting companionship and sensory stimulation improved the ability of nursing home residents to socialize while decreasing stress, anger and disruptive behavior. In addition, pet therapy decreased the need for sedatives or medications to prevent agitation. Self-esteem, patient independence and increased responsibility also were noted.

Occupational and physical therapists found that pet therapy had many physical benefits for patients. Muscle strength and range of movement improved, and pain management was more successful. Pets also reduced blood pressure and slowed heart rates.

As the healthful benefits of pets become clearer, many apartments, condominiums and assisted living facilities are accepting animals. And the demand for "pet-friendly" establishments will only grow as the baby boomer generation marches past 65. Luckily, most long-term care facilities, hospitals and health clinics already have programs in place for animal-assisted therapy. There are training programs available to teach volunteers how to facilitate interactions between patients and pets. Individuals who are interested can find local community programs, often through animal-training associations, to certify their pets as therapy animals.

For adults who volunteer in pet-therapy programs, the health benefits are doubly strong! You get not only to care for and interact with your animal but also the fulfillment of seeing others benefit from your pet.

If you are older and live alone, you should seriously consider getting a pet. Whether it's a dog, cat, bird or even an iguana, a pet can be an amazing addition to your life. The unconditional love we give to and receive from a pet not only improves health but also fulfills a critical need in our lives.

Dr. David Lipschitz's weekly column, "Lifelong Health," appears at creators.com.

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