French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette once said, "Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet." Pets provide meaningful social support for owners, and they can be especially beneficial for seniors. Ample research shows pet ownership delivers physical and mental health benefits for seniors, regardless of whether they're living on their own or in a senior living community.
However, many older Americans still mistakenly believe moving into a senior living community means they'll have to leave their pets behind. In fact, the fear they'll have to give up a beloved pet is among the top emotional reasons seniors don't want to move into senior living, according to author and senior real estate specialist Bruce Nemovitz. In an informal survey by Nemovitz, seniors ranked losing a pet as emotionally jarring as having to leave their familiar homes and possessions.
"Senior living communities like Brookdale Senior Living are all about supporting the physical health and mental well-being of residents," says Carol Cummings, senior director of Optimum Life. "For many senior citizens, pets are an important part of their lives. It makes sense to preserve the bond between pet and senior owner whenever possible."
Pet ownership benefits senior citizens in multiple ways, research shows. Older people who own dogs are likely to spend 22 additional minutes walking at a moderately intense pace each day, according to a recent study by The University of Lincoln and Glasgow Caledonian University. Published in BioMed Central, the study also found dog owners took more than 2,700 more steps per day than non-owners.
Multiple studies have also concluded that pet ownership can help lower blood pressure, contribute to improved cardiovascular health and reduce cholesterol.
Interacting with pets also has many mental health benefits, especially for seniors. Spending time with pets can help relieve anxiety and increase brain levels of the feel-good neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine. Pets can help relieve depression and feelings of loneliness.
The online journal Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research reports multiple studies indicate dementia patients who interact with animals become more social, are less agitated and have fewer behavioral issues.
Pets in senior living settings
"For too long, some senior living communities didn't recognize the value of allowing residents to bring their pets with them," Cummings says. "That has definitely changed."
For seniors looking for a community that will accept their pets, Cummings suggests a few questions to ask:
• What is your pet policy and what type of animal do you consider a pet? Generally, small dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, rats, hamsters, fish, turtles and other small companion animals qualify for pet policies. Seniors should check to be sure their pet meets the standards of the community.
• What is your pet health policy? Typically, senior living communities that accept small pets will want them to be current on all vaccinations and have regular exams by a licensed veterinarian. Pets will also need to have any required state- or county-issued licenses.
• What, if any, kind of training do you require pets to have? Requiring dogs to be house-trained and cats to be litter-trained is standard. Communities will also want to know your pet is well-behaved and not aggressive. They may ask you to have pets obedience trained.
• Do you offer any assistance with pet-related tasks? Most communities will require residents be able to care for pets themselves, including feeding, walking, potty needs and health needs.
"Moving into a senior living community is a big change, one that most residents find positive," Cummings says. "They gain freedom from home maintenance tasks and household chores, a socially rewarding environment, and as-needed support for healthcare and daily care. As long as seniors are still able to care for their pets, there's no reason they shouldn't be allowed to bring their best friends with them to their new homes."