Pets are the Elderly’s Best Friend

My client, a woman I’ll call “Ann,” died last week with her beloved pup by her side.

Ann suffered from progressive dementia and other ailments. She was suscepetible to depression, often pondering the meaning of this last life stage. Toward the end, Ann was wheelchair-bound, with her memory and speech slipping away. However, she did recognize and cherish her family, her loving caregivers, See’s chocolates, and, most importantly, her adopted terrier, Buttons.

Buttons was a gift to the assisted living facility through a will, the last wishes of a thankful client. Ann and Buttons fell in love. She fussed over his care, frequently pointing out that he needed his bangs trimmed, saving bits of her lunch to sneak to him, and helping the staff give him baths in the sink.

In turn, Buttons was a faithful friend. He whimpered to sit in Ann’s lap. He knew her bedroom and bed, and curled up at Ann’s feet every night to sleep. Hardly able to talk, Ann easily managed, “Have you seen my dog? Oh, isn’t he beautiful? The most beautiful dog ever.” And her eyes would well up in tears.

You may think I exaggerate, but I do not. Buttons did not know it, but he was Ann’s anti-depressant and a huge motivation for living. He did just what pet lovers and those who work in the field of pet-facilitated therapy have always known.

Dogs, cats, birds, and more offer sweetness and stimulation to the young and old alike, from hospitalized children to the institutionalized or isolated elderly. Pets comfort and delight, and are a welcome break from any institution’s daily routine. A pet is a loving companion and something to care for, making owners feel needed and useful.

Remaining useful is, I believe, one of the most important ingredients of healthy aging. I suspect it was what kept Ann going, against all odds.

And a pet provides many goodies to those who tend to isolate themselves at home. Visiting the vet, walking around the block and chatting with neighbors eases in socialization, exercise, and the possibility of new friends. It is no mere coincidence that empty-nesters happily buy puppies or kittens to fill the void left by departed children.

Pet-facilitated therapy is a respected form of rehabilitation and support. The internationally known Delta Society, dedicated to improving human health through service and therapy animals, describes two rehab categories: Animal Assisted Activities and Animal Assisted Therapy. Delta has developed AAA and AAT training, standards of practice, certification, and in 1990, the Pet Partners Program, which trains volunteers and their pets to visit schools and health care facilities. After Ann passed peacefull, Buttons moped and sniffed around her bed. I hope he soon bonds with a new companion and continues his job as “man’s best friend.”