As Seniors Month draws to a close in Victoria, we are celebrating all things ageing in our community, especially the role that companion pets play in enriching our lives (at any age) and in enabling people to stay healthy, well and happier for longer.
There is so much evidence out there now on the benefits of companion pets, especially for older people. Pets encourage us to remain active and socially engaged for longer; pet owners recover faster from heart attacks and other illnesses and have shorter hospital stays, pet owners have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and are four times less likely to need to visit the doctor.
We get it. Pets make our lives better. We know that. We feel it. We see this every day.
However, in our work as a veterinary team in the community we also recognize that as life goes through its phases, circumstances can change, and our capacity to maintain the health and wellbeing of our cherished pets can become compromised. This can be problematic, and lead to increased angst, suffering and worry for pet owners not to mention poor health and declining welfare in our cherished pets.
We have developed solutions to this social issue so that pets can remain healthy and together with their people for as long as possible, with tailored, professional support and service provided where needed.
We build capacity in people – financially, physically and emotionally – so they can enjoy the benefits of a healthy and well cherished pet.
If you are a senior person, or relative/friend of one, considering getting a pet, please consider the following advice:
Consider your own health and wellbeing. What are your capabilities now as a senior person to commit to the ongoing care of a pet? Where might you need support?
Getting started right. Choose a suitable pet that meets your capabilities and needs. Time and time again we see people who have selected a dog who is not ideal for their current circumstances. A great example of this is people who are “breed attached”, ie have a long association with a particular breed. As we go through our life phases, the “ideal” pet to suit our lifestyle also changes. For example I recall my client in his late 80s who acquired a boisterous German Shepherd puppy because, ”I’ve always owned German Shepherds”. However, this frail gentleman was no longer able to meet his puppy’s needs, the puppy’s wellbeing was compromised as a result and the angst and risk this puppy presented to my client was significant.
I think more people need to consider cats as pets in senior years. There are so many cats in foster care seeking forever loving homes. Cats are easier to care for overall and yet they also provide the companionship that many elderly people are seeking.
Seek the pet that best suits your lifestyle, capabilities and needs and also consider the financial commitment you are making. Also consider the fact that pets can live up to 15-20 years.
If you have an elderly relative don’t assume that a pet is the answer. Surprise pet gifts at Christmas are not a good idea for anybody!
Build your support systems. Cherished Pets was established so that we can provide people with the support and care plans they need to ensure their pets stay healthy and well, so that the bond can flourish and the benefits be enjoyed by people. Family, neighbours, community, local pet suppliers, service providers all become part of your support system so that you can enjoy the benefits of a pet. Consider shared care of a pet with a family member, friend or neighbor (see point below)
Consult an expert (ie. veterinarian, Cherished Pets) in making a careful choice and to provide guidance in sourcing your pet. There is no such thing as a perfect pet, but with careful planning and consideration you can increase the chance of finding the ideal companion for you. Take time to consider the commitment. Don’t rush in to decisions. Get good advice.
Consider Shared Care. I have seen shared care arrangements work really well. Over the years I have connected neighbours over a pet. Eg an elderly person living alone who has lost a pet, connects to a young family living in the same street. This has worked beautifully with the family being the primary owner, assuming financial responsibility, but while everyone is at work and school during the day, the dog has spent time with the elderly neighbor. When this works out it is wonderful. Dogshare is a platform that supports these connections.
Our Cherished Pets project matches volunteer respite carers to elderly pet owners whose health is declining. Often a shared care arrangement transpires and in some cases, when the original owner has passed away, the pet has a forever home with this volunteer.
Every day we have the joy of working with pets and senior people who are both enjoying the enrichment and life nourishment that a healthy pet provides.
When done properly, pets and seniors are a beautiful combination, but to be successful it needs support and thoughtful planning.
Life, as we know, is a rollercoaster ride. Pets are intrinsic to our journey and health and well-being. For so many people in their senior years, their pets form really special memories of years gone by: of people, experiences, events, hardship and celebrations. We remember the chapters of our life often by the pets we shared them with. People with dementia will often recall pets in their life and open up to share stories.
In addition, pets are often our link to a loved one. As an example, when someone loses a spouse after 50+ years of marriage, the shared pet becomes a connection to that partner of so many years. The role of a pet in this scenario is huge, providing support and companionship to a person through a vulnerable time. When that pet ages, becomes unwell and dies, it can trigger so much for the person. Having an understanding of this, and providing compassionate and supportive care is so vital.
As people get older, we become vulnerable, either physically, emotionally or financially. Pets become our companions, providing comfort and strength, they are our security blanket and our rock, particularly through difficult times. There is a lot of research coming out at the moment about the positive impact pets have on our mental health.
“We have lost count of the number of times senior people have told us that their pet is the reason they get up and out of bed each day”.
Sharing our senior years with a companion pet can make this very special chapter of our life happier, more enriched and healthier. However, to enjoy these benefits we need to plan. Plan to get a suitable pet, think ahead, create support networks and ensure you include pets in emergency care planning.
Through our unique service we prepare emergency care plans for pets so that in the event of the owner being hospitalized, going in to care or dying, the person has enormous peace of mind that an agreed plan is in place to ensure their cherished pet is loved and looked after beyond their time. It is this peace of mind that matters most to the senior people we care for with their pets.