The Power of Pets: Creating a Connection

By Barbara Worthington

Animals can open the lines of  communication with older adults, diminish their isolation, and even improve physical conditions.

Americans have long been a society of animal lovers. Animals provide companionship, unconditional love, and lifelong friendship. In 2007, 71.1 million U.S. households owned some type of pet, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association. The study indicates that those households owned approximately 73.9 million dogs and 90.5 million cats.

These figures reinforce the knowledge that animals hold a special place in our homes and our hearts. Relationships with animals develop into bonds that strengthen significantly over time.

Many older adults enjoy memories of pets that lived in their homes as they grew up, others that were family members as they raised their own children, and even pets that served as faithful companions in later life.

But the isolation many older adults experience, resulting from losses they’ve sustained—loss of good health, spouses, and their homes—frequently creates a barrier that diminishes their quality of life.

However, animal-assisted therapy introduced into the lives of many older adults has offered a connection that allows elders to remember, vocalize their recollections, and smile.

Ideal Ambassadors
Animals, of course, need the proper personality, temperament, and training to interact with older adults in a positive way. It’s best to use animals that have been trained and certified by organizations such as the Delta Society, based in Bellevue, WA, according to Aubrey Fine, EdD, a professor of education at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, who has authored several books on animal-assisted therapy and the human/animal bond.

Through his research, Fine has found that animals are well suited to work with older adults. “There’s a lot of work that demonstrates the efficacy of this population,” he says, while he realistically admits, “Not all animals can do this.”

After mastering basic obedience skills—sit, down, and stay—well-mannered animals that don’t jump up or lick are ready to interact with elders, according to JoAnn Turnbull, director of marketing for the Delta Society.  “One of the most important characteristics is that the animal has a personality that wants to be around people—they enjoy going up and meeting new people,” she says.

Turnbull says the organization “focuses on both ends of the leash” in its Pet Partners program. “We believe training of the human end of a team is as important as training of an animal [in order] to ensure healthy and effective interactions,” says Turnbull, adding that the training program helps the human understand infection control procedures, how to interact with different types of populations, and ways to proactively work with their animals so the animals don’t become stressed or immersed in a potentially negative situation.

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy
When animals visit assisted living facilities, nursing homes, or isolated homebound elders, they succeed in delivering numerous positive effects. Whether cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, or even rats, these furry friends possess the ability to trigger pleasant memories and huge smiles.

Animal-assisted therapy among older adults “brings joy to a person, breaks the ice, and makes chatting easier,” says Fine. When he visits assisted living centers with animals, residents listen attentively to his stories. “Then they want to tell me their stories,” he says, noting that animals frequently evoke pleasant memories of former pets, growing up, family outings, or other events about which elders can reminisce.

The presence of a cat, dog, rabbit, or other pet softens the environment, according to Fine. “It changes the milieu. It’s inviting and makes it much warmer,” he says.

Fine finds that older adults frequently experience isolation in their lives, failing to see the value in their existence. Interacting with animals enables them to talk about life in the present. “We love to feel needed,” he says. “Animals provide a positive alternative [to isolation] and give elders a sense of purpose.”

Animals contribute “tremendous value” to the lives of elders, according to Fine. In addition to contributing to elders’ quality of life, animals can help to create actual physical benefits, he says. For example, petting an animal reduces blood pressure and increases healthy neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and oxytocin. “Sometimes petting reduces stress, reducing the level of cortisol,” he says.

Pets can serve as a bridge for communications as well. An animal that sparks memories of an elder’s past can prompt him or her to speak where he or she might previously have been disengaged and silent, according to Turnbull. Animal visits can decrease elders’ feelings of loneliness, increase morale and optimism, and bring a sense of calm.

Additionally, Turnbull says, “Animals can satisfy the need for touch and to be touched,” as they provide nonjudgmental warmth and affection. Another advantage is an increase in elders’ socialization and reduction in mood swings.

Generating Enthusiasm
Marjorie Shoemaker, coordinator of Caring Paws, a division of the Caring People Alliance in Philadelphia, finds that elders respond positively to various animal species. Certified in animal-assisted therapy, Shoemaker has teamed up with different animals to visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities, rehabilitation facilities, and older adults’ homes.

Elders’ interactions with animals have improved their self-esteem, helped them cope with their losses, and boosted their sense of self-worth, according to Shoemaker. Loneliness, helplessness, and boredom cause older adults’ immune systems to plummet, she says. “They need to nurture. If you can nurture something, you grow. When you stop growing, you die,” she says.

Shoemaker frequently introduces her “pocket pets” to her clients, who typically respond very favorably to guinea pigs and even rats. “When you pet a guinea pig, it purrs,” she says. Older adults get extra stimulation from an animal’s contented response. “And rats are the most incredible animals. They’re intelligent and affectionate.”

As a function of the Caring Paws program, which is funded by the Methodist Hospital Foundation, Shoemaker frequently visits homebound elders whose lives often revolve around an existence of isolation. With her she takes Fleur, a docile and loving golden retriever/yellow Labrador mix. The remarkable canine responds to 52 commands and interacts well with older adults.

Shoemaker characterizes most of the elders she visits as fragile.  “My visits give them something to look forward to,” she says. Her experience has shown that older adults’ interaction with animals develops self-esteem and helps them cope with issues of loss. Additionally, such interaction reduces depression and can contribute to improved motor output.

Universal Appeal
Making a connection that leads to communication, social interaction, and improved outlook extends beyond the general elder population. Animal-assisted therapy captivates elders with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as well.

“In any environment with cognitive issues, [animal visits] bring on laughter and smiles,” says Shoemaker. “And if you’re involved with an animal, you’re exercising your brain.”

“One of the things that animals give us is the true sense of belonging and being needed,” says Fine. “Animals let you know that you’re important.”
He says that connections between older adults and animals may be made without fanfare. “They don’t even have to talk. Sometimes just sitting quietly with an animal is beautiful.”

The presence of an animal can spark memories of older adults’ own pets, “even if the visiting animal may not be the same breed or species,” says Turnbull. “It can get them talking.”

Making the Connection
Animal-assisted therapy is similar to a meet-and-greet opportunity for older adults to interact with an animal, according to Turnbull, and the therapy is goal directed. Working with healthcare workers, social workers, or other professionals, pet partner team members learn to interact with older adults. Then the results of the interaction are recorded.

“It’s actually a science,” says Shoemaker. “There are emotional and physical goals that are tabulated and assessed.’’

She finds that animal-assisted therapy makes significant inroads in elders’ lives. “It works because the animal is your tool—your bridge to reaching an older adult. It’s a connection; it’s a spark. Sometimes it brings a person to reality. People relate to animals—they get people to talk”

“Animals make a contribution to our sense of quality of life. Animals provide a sense of hope,” adds Fine. He says interaction with animals lets older adults know that “you still can be a giver and receiver of devotion and care.”

— Barbara Worthington is associate editor of Aging Well.