In today’s world, an increasing number of adults are opting to age in place during their golden years. This choice, while accompanied by various adjustments, can sometimes lead to a loss of independence and a quieter social life, contributing to feelings of loneliness and vulnerability to depression among aging individuals. However, finding solace and purpose in this new stage of life is possible for you or your loved one through the companionship of a pet. The timeless saying, “A dog is a man’s best friend,” holds true for a reason. Dogs, brimming with unconditional love and joy, serve as wonderful comfort animals. Many can share stories that highlight the humour, pleasure, and overall positive impact of life with dogs as companions.
Here’s our perspective on this topic, emphasising the therapeutic bond between dogs and the elderly. Studies indicate numerous advantages to having a pet as you choose to age in place. Continue reading to explore these benefits and gain insights that will aid in determining if having a pet during your golden years aligns with your preferences.

  • Roshan J Mundapallil, Sowmya Lakshmi

Anand Naidu, an architect by profession, lived almost 35 years in Tampa, FL. At the age of 74, after a year into widowhood, he decided to move back to India. It was a well thought out decision and endorsed by his son Mohit, because few of his relatives lives in the city. He was adamant in getting his fluffy companion, Blu from America. Since then they lived happily in a house in the upmarket, Indiranagar. Blu was more than his fluffy companion as his life has a new chapter and Blu is the hero.

Anand uncle remember how he added Blu into his ‘Family’. ‘In 2006 January, my wife, Anne, died suddenly. She’d suffered a brain aneurysm while we were at dinner with friends. Our 35th wedding anniversary was supposed to be in February. Then, in an instant, she was gone. Our lives revolved around each other and we were busy with our architect firm. I was still mourning Anne and I vouch spouse loss is an earth shattering experience for me. The unexpected loss of my wife shattered me and I knew life is not going to be the same again at the age of 73. Grief, thoughts of death and dying, filled my waking hours and haunted my dreams. It was my junior business partner, Joshua who insisted that I take ‘Blu’. First I was hesitant because I was not very comfortable, but then Mohit also persuaded me. It was Joshua who got the puppy, tail wagging, ready to play and we named him, Blu’.

Anand uncle continued, ‘Second tragedy in my life is the loss of Blu. Another earth shattering experience with a much higher magnitude. It took several months for me to recover. Blu, lived a happy 14 years and not a dull moment between us. That is when I decided no more pets and I am too old and infirm to manage. When I thought of moving into a care home my first priority was to find a pet friendly place where there is a therapy dog. I shortlisted advantAGE care home, just because you have therapy dogs here to soothe the ‘strained and bruised souls’.

In a nutshell, we would like to show both the benefits and challenges for seniors wanting to have a pet. Lot of scientific literature available on pet keeping for older adults and most of them find that pets can provide social interaction and protection against depression, but keeping a pet is not that easy. Being able to keep a pet dog should be possible at any age, even to the later years, provided you may get assistance for the upkeep and grooming. Studies has shown having a dog has several benefits for older adults, including higher levels of physical activity which in turn may lead to better health. As well, because pets need a routine of feeding, walking, bathing etc., this gives older adults a daily routine. Pets can be protective against feelings of loneliness, provide emotional support, and give people something to talk about, perhaps a way to make friends or to chat to caregivers.

There was a Mayo Clinic Study which suggests that dogs are a heart’s best friend. A sample size of 1800 between 25-65 age group who had healthy hearts, almost half owned a dog. And those with canine companions were more likely to adopt heart-healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising, eating well and having ideal blood sugar levels than those without a dog. Overall they had better cardiovascular health, largely stemming from the extra exercise from walking and caring for a dog. Definitely caring needs physical exertion.

Considering the fact that majority of older adults feel lonely as they are expected to experience spouse loss, reduced mobility, shrinking friends circle coupled with declining health including poor sleep, higher stress, and more inflammation in the later years, adopting pets, or granting more access to therapy dogs could improve their well-being. Recently, one of our patient’s Daughter in law endorsed the same view that after her father in law’s death, mother in law coped very well just because of her pet dog. In fact, among many of our known seniors who lived alone and/or reported fair or poor physical health, majority said their pets helped them cope with physical or emotional symptoms.

Pets can ease pain. Lot of older adults who live alone and of those in fair or poor physical health reported that their pets help take their mind off pain. Indeed, a 2012 study in ‘pain magazine’ found that therapy dogs provided “significant reduction in pain and emotional distress for chronic pain patients.” After all, pet owners who look into a dog’s eyes for at least five minutes get a boost of the feel-good oxytocin hormone in the brain, the journal science reported.

One of our patient was bed ridden for quite a long period of almost 15 years due to advanced arthritis but in spite of severe deformities and pain, she kept pet dogs all through her infirm years. Her children being settled abroad, these dogs were her solace. Her life revolves around these pet dogs and tells us she forget about her disability and pain. Though she was not physically attending to the dogs, she’s involved too much about the grooming and feeding of the dogs and she’s completely engaged with no time to get ‘depressed’. An otherwise painful ‘arthritis’, was no longer an issue for this patient and she tells us I no longer concerned about the ‘pain’ when my dogs are around. The dogs, looks like, understand the disabilities of their ‘mother’ and they try to be more attentive and cosier to this aunty.

It is our experience as social gerontologists, and we endorse the fact that most of the older adults loose interest in life and becomes lethargic in later years. It’s all too common to see ageing adults lose interest in the things they once loved. Pets help seniors stick to a routine. Many seniors admit that caring for their pets helped them keep a routine, and their pets provided a sense of purpose.

Structuring your days and adding activities becomes even more important after you retire, because the risk of depression rises when a person has no sense of purpose. Cognitive abilities improve when you engage in meaningful activities otherwise a rapid decline in health is what is expected. So activities of feeding, walking, grooming and playing with a pet can help fill those empty hours and keep the mind sharp.

Animals have been acknowledged as a beneficial presence in the healing journey for quite some time. Dogs, in particular, exert a calming and therapeutic influence, aiding individuals in managing the emotional aspects of their illness. Additionally, they provide valuable physical contact with another living being, a dimension often lacking in the lives of older individuals. Dogs evoke pleasant memories of past pets and, most importantly, redirect an individual’s focus away from the immediate challenges of the day. For long-term elders, it’s not solely the stress of daily issues but also the feelings of boredom, loneliness, and a sense of diminished control that significantly impact their well-being.

Numerous retirement homes and facilities have embraced the practice of introducing dogs, including therapy dogs, to bring comfort to weary souls. This initiative originated in Europe in the 1980s and later gained popularity in the United States. Therapy dogs, possessing unique qualities, play a pivotal role in enhancing the atmosphere within retirement homes and long-term care facilities.

Residents who may be isolated or experiencing sadness and grief can find solace in the companionship of therapy dogs, contributing significantly to their mental well-being. Witnessing a dog happily wag its tail brings joy to many senior residents, introducing a delightful break to their daily routine and alleviating boredom. Engaging with a therapy dog, whether through petting or allowing them to sniff their fingers, has been shown to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. Few residents may have been previous dog owners or enthusiastic animal enthusiasts, engaging closely with the dog, while others may find joy in the mere presence of a dog from a nearby seat. It’s crucial to recognise the diverse mobility and cognitive capabilities of each resident in a retirement home or long-term care facility.

Therapy dogs contribute not only to the companionship of seniors but also bring positive effects to the staff. These dogs have the power to lift moods, eliciting smiles from caregivers. Additionally, dogs serve as excellent icebreakers, easing tension in the environment. Recognising the potential of these dogs in the care environment, the advantAGE care facility welcomes “reformed” strays as therapy dogs. Initially, some individuals who are not accustomed to dogs may feel apprehensive, but with time, they tend to become more comfortable.

‘Sooner the better’, we suggest. It is better to have a pet the moment you retire because when you are healthy, you can attend the physical and emotional needs of these pets, especially dogs. Well into retirement, you will not emotionally connect with the pet because you see them as more of a nuisance. Dogs need constant attention. Dogs can be physically demanding. But one shouldn't adopt a golden retriever or any ferocious breed for their golden years without considering how a pet will affect their lifestyle and their finances. So seniors with limited mobility may want to adopt a more chill and low-maintenance dog, ( Dachshund, Maltese, Chihuahua, Pomeranian, Yorkshire Terrier, French Bulldog,) over a large dog with boundless energy that needs to be walked a few times a day.

When contemplating the idea of having a pet dog, financial considerations become crucial. It’s essential to assess whether you can afford to care for this animal during your golden years. How well does it fit into your budget, and what arrangements will be in place if you are no longer able to personally care for it? Unfortunately, one of the key aspects of pet ownership is financial sustainability. Given that dogs often outlive their aging owners, with an average lifespan of 14 to 16 years, there is a somber possibility that an older adult who acquires a younger pet may pass away before their animal does.

Various situations, such as hospitalisation, short-term rehabilitation, or relocation to a long-term care or assisted living facility, can also arise. Considering these factors, it’s advisable to include pets in your estate planning. This involves naming a caretaker for the pet and potentially establishing a pet trust to cover the animal’s expenses. Initially, prospective pet owners think that once they’ve bought the dog, the only real cost is only feeding it. In reality, there’s a lot more to it than that. Vet’s bills, medications, toys, grooming, and kennel bills do tend to stack up. Considering the longevity of the dogs, it’s important to factor these costs in. Though an exaggeration, one of our friend told us that he could’ve sent two for engineering course considering the cost of keeping his husky and lab. In reality, most dog owners splurge and they go to any extent to pamper their fluffy companion, including birthday parties and weekly outings.

As you get older, you may be left alone because that is how life plays out. Loneliness can be depressing, which can cause health issues in the long run. Owning a pet means you will never be alone and will have a companion by your side always. As social gerontologists, keeping the benefits in mind, we highly recommend to own a dog though pet ownership is a serious commitment. Dogs and elderly people can be a great combination. But caution is urged.

Statutory Warning: Owning a dog can be one of life’s joys but it’s important to remember that if you can’t give this fluffy friend a good life then you shouldn’t get one to begin with.