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Seniors and Pets: The Benefits of Interaction

Seniors and Pets: The Benefits of Interaction

In senior living communities, the employees strive daily to bring a bit of joy back to someone’s life. Not many people acknowledge the impact that having a pet can have on you until you can no longer have one. Many also do not know the outstanding opportunities offered to communities nationwide to allow seniors and pets to interact further and the benefits this can have on both parties.

Betsy is one of the seniors with these benefits in North Naples, FL. Each month, caregivers witness the wide grin that spreads across Betsy’s face when bunnies visit the assisted living community where she resides. She spends the hour holding and petting the bunnies, talking to them while continuously smiling.

 “They are so sweet. I love these bunnies,” Betsy says with one in her lap.

Health organizations worldwide have long documented the benefits of pets for seniors. Having a pet therapy team visit or pets residing within a senior community can combat loneliness and isolation while also bringing comfort and companionship to the residents. These animals can also reduce stress while promoting overall health and wellness. 

The American Heart Association Journal acknowledged that the relationship between seniors and pet ownership reduced cardiovascular disease problems. “Recent reports have suggested an association of dog companionship with lower blood pressure levels, improved lipid profile, and diminished sympathetic responses to stress.”

There are several ways seniors and pets can interact, even if they can no longer fully care for their own: 

  • Visitation Therapy: Visitation therapy is one of the most common ways associated with senior communities. This program allows animals to visit older adults in a senior living community, retirement community, or their homes. The pets, in this case, are usually either certified pets that people will bring to these communities or older shelter animals who also crave this attention. 
  • Animal-assisted Therapy: There is also animal-assisted therapy where seniors are paired with animals that help them with physical skills and build confidence. With this, animals not only provide people with some time to enjoy their company but also assist on walks, movement, and more. 
  • In-Home Pet: There is pet ownership for seniors who can care for a pet. While not many communities allow residential pets, some have been known to make the exception and allow their residents to have smaller animals residing with them.

Betsy owned pets as a child and younger adult. One of the aspects of moving into a community that was difficult for Betsy was the lack of her pets and the daily interaction that came with having one. On the days when the bunnies arrive, Betsy is more talkative with others and animated. The pet visits help with her social skills, lessen anxiety, and bring her great happiness. Providing seniors with these interactions not only gives them something to look forward to, but also companionship for those who do not thrive in social situations.  

Brian Wierima, community relations coordinator for the Gulf Coast Humane Society, helps run a Senior to Senior program in Lee County. Volunteers with the humane society take older dogs to five local senior living facilities in the community.

“We try to have these seniors interact with senior dogs, eight years or older,” Wierima began. “They are calmer. Their behavior and manners are better and it pairs well.”

The dogs go to recreation rooms for larger group visits or to individual rooms for seniors who do not wish to participate in larger groups. Providing both a group setting and an isolated environment allows individuals to take advantage of this event while not pushing seniors into situations that might make them uncomfortable.

“The seniors just love it,” Wierima exclaimed. “It is great for both our senior dogs and the seniors. There are benefits both ways. It is a very beneficial program. By the time you leave, you see the results. There are smiles. Also, it breaks up a routine for the residents, and many of them previously owned pets. In many of the senior residential homes, they can’t have pets, so having some time with a dog fills that void they lost.”

It has become more common for humane societies to provide programs that encourage seniors to take these available times with the animals to fill a gap they might be missing. In some instances, if allowed, it also promotes adopting or fostering these senior pets.  

Gulf Coast Humane Society is one of the partners offering authorized communities animal fostering. They provide a senior fostering program where a senior citizen can temporarily take care of a dog or cat. All the food and transportation are provided. This removes some of the cost concerns while allowing the senior citizens and pets the comfort of each other. 

Wierima says this has many benefits, “The animal gives the senior a routine, it gets them exercise. It gets them outside to take walks,”  he said.

Weirma believes strongly that this addition to their communities activities has dramatically impacted their seniors. 

Cheryl Gregson, activities director at an assisted living facility in North Naples, has brought dogs, rabbits, horses, wolves, parrots and Trooper the raccoon to visit her seniors. She also has four parakeets that live in the common area.

“It’s so important,” Gregson stressed. “Whenever a pet, any kind of pet, comes into the room, everybody lights up; everybody smiles, everybody is happy. It makes a difference.”

Betsy is not the only senior who has benefited from pet therapy activities. Across the nation, hundreds of communities provide similar opportunities to their residents, and the number continues to grow. 

Are seniors in your area looking for similar pet interaction options? Contact your local senior advisor today for more information on how to provide this in your community, or with assistance finding a community that does.