As populations across the world are ageing and the baby-boom generation enter retirement, more and more of our residents are moving into retirement homes or elder-care. Stressors for the elderly in care could be from a number of factors, but some of the most common are; death of loved ones, health issues and loneliness.
Many elderly in care facilities find that they are quite restricted in terms of belongings they can bring and whether or not they are permitted to bring pets. This can be especially difficult for those who have had pets for most of their lives or for those whose pets have become their close companion. Pet therapy has been shown by various research studies to be an effective treatment of stress in the elderly and is now being permitted in more and more elder-care facilities.
As discussed in research, the onset of loneliness is very common among the elderly with any of a number of stressful events precipitating that loneliness. Physical separation family or friends and the death of close loved ones are common factors associated with the onset of loneliness.
Pet therapy or AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) has been shown to achieve two particular results, not only among the elderly but among other groups of the population at large; 1) decrease loneliness and 2) increase socialization.
In terms of the effectiveness of pet therapy for the elderly in elder-care facilities, it was found to be very effective in those who volunteered to receive such therapy, particularly where they had a strong life-history of a relationship with pets. Those residents tended to have made pet ownership a part of their social- support system and missed their connection with pets upon entering the care facility.
Another benefit that has been found from pet therapy for the elderly is that they will often spontaneously recall past events while visiting with the animal. Many have positive recollections of their interactions with pets from earlier years and these memories are brought out by contact with the pets.
Along with a reduction in overall stress levels, pet therapy for the elderly has been shown to produce some physical benefits. These may include; lowering of blood pressure and lowering of heart rates as well as cognitive benefits such as lowering of anxiety and depression levels. Consistent interaction with pets has been shown to release an increased amount of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which help to soothe the body.
So, whether you work in elder-care or have friends or relatives placed in care, have a think about what may have changed for them and what might make them more comfortable in their new home. The chances are, if they have been used to having pets, regular contact with animals or being able to keep a pet may help them to feel more comfortable and combat any loneliness they may be feeling.
Resources: Banks & Banks (2002). The Effects of Animal Assisted Therapy on Loneliness in an Elderly Population in Long-Term Care Facilities. Journal of Gerontology.
Bermuda Commons 2012