We’ve all heard the saying that “dog is man’s best friend,” but this is especially true for older individuals. Whether living at home or in an assisted care facility, many older people develop a sense of isolation. August 26th is National Dog Day! To celebrate the day, we’ve brought you the top 10 remarkable ways dogs benefit elderly people!
Providing Companionship: In this day and age, many individuals feel a strong sense of isolation. This feeling is often amplified for older individuals who cannot easily get out of the house, or whose spouses may have passed away or moved to assisted living. A dog is a great companion that can greatly reduce feelings of isolation by providing individuals with somebody to bond with and even talk to. Feelings of loneliness often lead to depression which can have detrimental physical impacts as well, so the need for companionship is far from superficial.
Ensuring Safety: Having an alert companion can notify an elderly person of a possible intruder or fire that they may not have otherwise noticed. Alternately, for individuals who may become anxious over every bump and creak in the night, knowing that their canine companions do not sense a threat can help those individuals to relax. Regardless of the size or demeanor of your dog, if potential intruders hear him barking they are significantly less likely to attempt to enter the premises.
Buffering Social Situations: While dogs provide great companionship, nothing can replace good old-fashioned human conversation. However, dogs can help with this as well! Whether out for a walk, or taking your dog to the vet, groomer, pet store, dog park, or other location, pets provide a great icebreaker that can get you talking about way more than just your pooch. Likewise, when kids and grandkids visit, dogs provide something to talk about, breaking any “awkward silence” and helping individuals bond. Fido’s funny habits offer a great conversation starter that can bridge any age gap.
Encouraging Activity: All dogs require exercise, regardless of age and breed, just as all humans require exercise. However, we are much more motivated to actually get up and go outside or go for a walk if it is benefiting someone other than ourselves. While we might procrastinate exercise on our own, feelings of guilt when you receive those “sad puppy dog eyes” make it hard to ignore a dog’s desire to get active. While some hyper breeds would not be suitable for an older person with limited abilities, there are plenty of breeds that are happy with only a short walk or even simply running around the yard for a game of fetch.
Adding Consistency: While those of us who work 9-5 jobs, then go home to additional responsibilities may dream of retirement, once we actually get there it can be difficult to adjust. After years spent with such busy schedules and limited free time, we actually forget how to live without those diversions. Dogs can help create a sense of consistency, as they will typically wake up at the same time every day, then require food, walks, and playtime. Having a set schedule makes life easier on both dogs and their owners, and may even help ward off early symptoms of dementia (source).
Reducing Anxiety / Depression: Many “service dogs” help with invisible issues, rather than just opening doors or providing guidance. For individuals who are prone to anxiety, especially in social situations, having a familiar companion nearby can provide a great deal of relief. Your dog does not need to be a trained and registered service animal to provide some of the same benefits.
Instilling a Sense of Purpose: Many elderly individuals have had children and even grandchildren. They may have spent a large portion of their lives caring for their children, but once the kids are grown and have lives of their own, a void appears. Dogs are excellent at helping to fill this void as they require similar love, support, and guidance as children. The best part? They will never talk back – dogs shower their owners with unconditional love and affection and are happiest just being around their loved ones.
Teaching New Tricks: We’ve all heard the old adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” applied to both animals and humans. It is certainly not true, though, as it is possible to learn new things at any age, it simply becomes more difficult. Upon adopting a dog, the dog is not the only one who will be learning new tricks. Owners often turn to books or internet articles for best practices, tips, and tricks. Reading and learning are extremely beneficial for older minds, and can also help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s (source).
Providing a Service: Some individuals may qualify for a service dog. These dogs are trained helpers who can assist in tasks such as opening doors and providing guidance to those with visual impairments, or provide emotional support to those with mental conditions such as anxiety. Discuss your needs with your doctor to determine if you qualify for a service companion, or check out foundations such as Paws with a Cause.
Relieving Pain: Unfortunately, with old age often comes physical impairments, aches, and pains. Pets may help relieve perceived pain by providing a distraction, rather than focusing on one’s level of pain and discomfort which can make everything seem worse (source).
Choosing the Right Dog
With over 300 dog breeds (source) and infinite variations of mixed breeds, there is a dog to suit each and every person. Always do your homework first and research which breeds would best suit your lifestyle. For instance, if you or a family member has an allergy, look into hypoallergenic pets. If you will have grandchildren at your house frequently, look into breeds that are typically good with children.
Additionally, consider your current lifestyle – some breeds are high-energy and will want to play all day, while others are extremely mellow and can happily cuddle up and nap for hours. Breed size is also important – while many individuals automatically assume that a small breed is best for an older individual, this is not always the case. Check out this handy guide to help you narrow down the choices and determine which breed(s) would be best for you: Dog Breed Selector.
When possible, always adopt a dog from a shelter rather than purchasing from a breeder. Often, older dogs (over 3 years old) are preferable for older individuals rather than puppies because they require less training and exercise. Likewise, when adopting from a shelter, volunteers or foster parents often know the dogs well and can help you select a companion with the ideal temperament.
Older dogs are often less-likely to be adopted, but may provide the perfect companionship for elderly individuals as they are much less active than their younger counterparts. Adopting an elderly dog provides the added benefit of rescuing him or her from possible euthanasia.
It is important to teach your new pet basic commands and manners. Older individuals in particular should consider professional dog-training courses to ensure that they can safely manage and control their pets, especially when physical strength may be compromised. Many pet stores such as Petsmart and PetCo offer inexpensive training classes to teach pets and their owners basic commands.
Pets and their toys may pose a tripping hazard, so those who are high-risk for falls should be extra careful when navigating around and make sure to pick up toys that may be scattered around the floor. In these situations, it may be safer to consider an alternate pet such as a bird or fish that does not occupy floor space.
For those who want the companionship of a dog but are physically unable to provide their dog with sufficient exercise, consider hiring a trusted neighborhood dog-walker to supplement your dog’s exercise needs. A well-exercised dog is a happy, calm, affectionate companion whereas a pent-up dog may become unruly or even destructive.
If you are unable to care for a pet, many shelters are happy to have volunteers come visit and play with dogs. Call your local shelter for opportunities to get involved without the commitment of full ownership.
Make sure that loved ones or neighbors know that you have a dog, and set up a contingency plan for care should you unexpectedly have to go to the hospital. Too often, pet owners do not return home and their pets are unknowingly left home alone for days before being discovered and rescued.