You may have personally experienced the calming effect of an animal — the contented purring of a cat or the companionable presence of a dog. But did you know that many scientific studies have proven that spending time with animals, even as few as 15 minutes, can actually change your brain chemistry in positive ways?
“A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.” In 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote this in her book, Notes On Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not,
One hundred fifty-eight years later, her advice still rings true, and not only for the sick, but also for seniors. In fact, it can be said without much argument that everyone — young and old, sick and well — can benefit from spending time with animals.
It changes the brain
The fact that interactions with animals release feel-good hormones like serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin is a big part of why many hospitals and long-term care facilities incorporate pet therapy into their programs. Some studies have even shown that the presence of animals in nursing homes reduces the need for patient medication.
Benefits of a relationship with an animal
For older people, animals deliver many physical and emotional health benefits, including:
- For mobile seniors, pets provide extra incentive and inspiration to get up, get outside, and get some exercise.
- For anyone, pets not only provide valuable companionship that alleviates loneliness, they are also often a catalyst for engaging with other people.
- Petting an animal has been shown to lower blood pressure, normalize heart rate, and generally reduce stress.
- People dealing with trauma have been shown to recover more quickly and with fewer long-term side effects when they have a pet for company.
- For people dealing with anxiety, depression, and vulnerability, pets can provide critical emotional stability.
- Caring for pets helps keep a person active and gives him or her a sense of purpose and worth that can be especially needed as we get older.
And, the list goes on and on. There are countless situations in which the friendship of an animal can have a transformative effect on a person’s outlook, health, and quality of life. Even reluctant pet owners usually come around and admit that their lives are better because of their four-legged, feathered, or finned friends.
Should you have a pet?
Adopting a pet is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly since caring for any living creature is a big responsibility. If you’re thinking about bringing a pet into your home, make sure you carefully consider things like:
- How adaptable you can be when it comes to changing your routine to accommodate a pet
- Whether you have any physical limitations that might make it difficult for you to perform certain tasks
- Whether your financial situation is such that you can afford the associated costs of food, accessories, and vet care.
It’s also important to take your time in choosing the right pet — one that fits your personality and your lifestyle. For many seniors, an older dog or cat is the perfect choice. There are actually some adoption programs that specialize in matching senior pets with senior people.
In other cases, it might make sense to consider getting two pets instead of just one. Sometimes, letting the animals bond with each other can help reduce the amount of attention needed from a human.
Finally, you should also consider your pet’s safety and well-being in case you need to be hospitalized unexpectedly. Having a contingency plan in place will put your mind at ease in case of emergency.
- Make sure that someone you trust has access to your home and is well versed on how to take care of your pets needs
- It’s also a good idea to keep written instructions somewhere handy like your kitchen, and include details such as your pet’s favorite activities, known hiding places, and so forth.
And if, after thinking it through, you decide that a pet is more than you can take on right now, you might want to consider finding other ways to interact with animals. Maybe a neighbor has a dog who would love an extra walk a couple times a week. You might offer to cat sit for a friend, or you could volunteer at an animal shelter.
However you bring animals into your life, you’ll be glad you did. There are few things more comforting or rewarding than the affection and companionship of an animal.