Bringing a dog into one’s life -- at any time in one’s life -- should never be undertaken lightly. Proper pet care requires time, money and commitment. The return on that investment, however, is huge. Dogs can play a particularly rewarding role in the lives of seniors.
Admittedly, the health concerns of seniors may limit the choice of canine companions. A boisterous Great Dane may not be the best choice for a 70-year old woman with osteoporosis. But the right match between canine and human can be a true boon for the senior.
One: A Boost for Physical Fitness
Every responsible dog owner knows that Fido needs exercise to be healthy and well mannered. Every responsible dog owner knows that Fido isn’t going to get enough exercise if he’s left alone in the yard. Walking the dog is a win-win solution. It affords all sorts of training opportunities while strengthening the canine-human bond. Walking also happens to be one of the best all-round exercises that seniors can undertake. A daily walk with the dog is a gentle way of lubricating stiff joints, stretching sludgy muscles and tendons, increasing oxygen intake and getting a cardio workout.
Unfortunately, studies show that only 30 percent of Americans between the age of 45 and 60 get any kind of regular physical exercise. For people over the age of 65, that percentage drops to a worrisome 25 percent. In other words, even if we know walking is good for us, we’re unlikely to commit to a walking routine by ourselves.
But Fido can guilt us into it, as he holds the leash in his mouth and looks beseechingly at his human.
Fido’s guilt trip can be a lifesaver for the over-50 crowd. A 30-minute dog walk several times a week offers benefits that are particularly meaningful for seniors. Recent research shows that people who walk regularly are less susceptible to age-related memory loss and dementia. In addition, regular walks can help improve balance, which often deteriorates with age.
But even without walking the dog, an older pet owner can get health benefits from Fido. Just petting a dog can ease hypertension, a chronic condition among seniors.
Two: Mental Health Benefits
A cuddle with Fido reduces blood pressure because that interaction eases overall stress and lightens mood. Dogs, more than any other pet, are famed for their nonjudgmental acceptance of their owners. Dogs will slurp a wrinkled face as eagerly as the smooth skin of a 20-year-old. Such equal-opportunity affection has great meaning for older people struggling with depression.
It’s no wonder that many nursing homes welcome visits by therapy dogs, to cheer up patients.
The responsibilities of pet ownership also provide a healthy distraction from the worries that all too often accompany the aging process. Retreating from the world to ponder one’s ailments, for example, is harder to do when you need to feed Fido or take him to the vet or usher him outside to do his business. For many seniors, a dog gives them a reason to get up in the morning, even a new sense of purpose.
Three: Putting Time in Perspective
Having a dog can also ease an older person’s obsession with the passage of time. Time can drag for people after they retire and send their grown children off into the world. Fido, however, will happily fill up the time -- with dog walks and Frisbee tosses and canine obedience classes. What’s more, the older dog owner may actually be a better care-giver precisely because he does have all that time on his hands. The dog living with a senior is less likely to spend long hours alone in the house while his owner is at work.
The older human, instead of obsessing about how little time lies ahead in his own life, can learn a thing or two from Fido. A dog’s entire lifespan rarely reaches two decades. But Fido couldn’t be less concerned. He knows how to be in the moment, how to pack in as much fun and affection as possible into his short time on the planet.
Elderly people living alone can become attractive targets for burglars. Most criminals prefer venues posing minimal risk, where the victims are unlikely to defend themselves or their property. A barking dog raises the risk factor significantly. To a criminal looking to get the job done quickly and then beat a clean retreat, Fido doesn’t need to be a Pit Bull or Rottweiler. All he needs to be is noisy. To that end, a little Yorkie fills the bill nicely.
A barking dog can alert neighbors to other kinds of trouble inside a home. Many a dog has sounded the alarm when its owner has had an accident or lost consciousness.
Nobel Prize winning zoologist and author Konrad Lorenz once said, “The bond with a true dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth will ever be” (from Man Meets Dog). The dog is indeed man’s best friend.
Companionship is the most important contribution a dog makes in any relationship with man, old or young. It’s hard to feel lonely with a dog nestled by your side. It’s hard to feel cut off from the world when Fido is joyously announcing the arrival of the mail or the Domino’s pizza guy.
Returning the Favor
Albert Schweitzer once crafted a prayer asking God to “make us true friends to the animals.” Being a true friend means making proper provisions for our animals -- after we die. For the older dog owner, the odds go up that he will die before his faithful canine. Whether the provisions are made formally in a will or informally, with the agreement of a trusted friend or relative, Fido deserves to have a loving home waiting for him after he has done his best for his old, trusted human friend.
Rainwater, Harold; "Walk Your Way to Fitness," Mature Fitness, American Senior Fitness Association, accessed 5/17/12
Ross, L. Woodrow; "Pets Can Help Boost Your Health," Internet Broadcasting, 2009
Sagon, Candy; "Walking: the Easiest Exercise," AARP Bulletin, 12/21/11