by D. Kevin McNeir. This article originally appeared in the Washington Informer.
Much has been reported about a paradigm shift within American society which looms on the horizon and cannot be ignored: In less than 20 years, according to U.S. Census data, older adults will outnumber children for the first time in our history. On reaching that milestone in 2035, experts predict, the 78 million older Americans 65 or more will slightly outnumber the 76.7 million children under 18.
Most of these seniors will be women, who have longer life expectancies than men and who will more than likely live at home with the assistance of family caregivers. The majority of the seniors will be baby boomers being cared for by their adult children, Gen Xers in their 50s and 60s and the older Millennials in their 40s and early 50s. Others will live alone, following a trend first observed in 2000, when less than five percent of Americans 65 and older lived in nursing homes, utilizing various services provided by home caregivers or other assisted living options.
Because of this shift, experts in aging, called gerontologists, have become increasingly concerned about the rising number of older Americans who will be isolated. Their research has focused on a range of potential remedies, such as volunteer friendly-visitor programs and even high-tech solutions, like videos and robots. One traditional approach to loneliness, though, is also gaining interest – pet ownership.
Looking ahead, experts indicate that by 2060, nearly one-in-four Americans will be 65 and older. Those 85 or older will triple in number, and the U.S. population will include an estimated half million centenarians. Other countries, including Japan, which already has the world’s oldest population, as well as Germany, Italy, France, Spain and several Eastern European nations, have already seen their collective populations and birthrates decline, while the demographic represented by those 65 and older continue to escalate.
These numbers have far-reaching impact on individual nations and the world because with an aging population come financial, political and social challenges – many of which have not been seen in previous generations.
For many, getting older can be lonely with loved ones and friends moving or dying. That said, a growing number of scholars, researchers have been studying one source of comfort and companionship that benefits seniors in numerous ways: pets or companion animals.
Benefits, Challenges for Elderly Pet Owners
Among the several hundred workshops, symposiums and lectures featured during The Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting in Boston, last November, was a group of presenters who provided keen insights on the topic, “Human-Animal Interaction: Impacts and Issues of Pet Ownership for Community-Dwelling Older Adults.”
One study cited during a symposium titled “Human-Animal Interaction” found that although pet owners reported participating in fewer social, recreational or cultural activities than those without animals in the survey, “pet owners were no less satisfied than were non-owners with their current levels of social participation.”
Researcher Ann M. Toohey, doctoral candidate in Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary, added, “For pet owners experiencing barriers to social participation, pets appeared protective of life satisfaction in some circumstances.”
Speaking at the same session, University of Texas assistant professor Sandra M. Branson, Ph.D., described a 2017 study she co-authored on depression, loneliness and pet attachment in homebound older adults. The paper, published in the Journal of Mind and Medical Sciences, found, “Cat owners reported fewer depressive symptoms, far less than dog owners with reasons that remain unclear.”
Branson continued, “Cats do not require training and exercise – factors that make cat ownership more emotionally satisfying and less physically demanding than dog ownership for older adults, especially those who are disabled. Alternatively, it’s possible that older adults with more depressive symptoms seek out dogs, who tend to be naturally social, to be more socially engaged and deal with depressive symptoms.”
Overall, Branson said, “Pet attachment provides mutual pleasure and a source of emotional support.” She added that although further research is needed to compare their findings with those including other homebound older adults, “Given the high prevalence of depression in homebound older adults and the association of depression with poor physical and mental health, cat ownership may be beneficial. Programs that match older cats with older adults may need to be considered for potential mental health benefits.”
Valparaiso University law professor Rebecca J. Huss noted, “The therapeutic value of keeping a companion animal, promoted as early as 1845, has served as a focus for an increasing number of today’s scholars in the social sciences dating back to the 1970s.” Although some earlier studies found no related health benefits with pet ownership, she said, “There appears to be greater support for the concept that the ownership of companion animals may have health benefits for particular demographic groups, including the elderly.”
According to her highly-regarded 2015 article, “Re-evaluating the Role of Companion Animals in the Era of the Aging Boomer,” in the Akron Law Review, conservative estimates show that about 30 percent of older-adult households. Projections show that by 2020, seniors will have approximately 16 million companion animals, and that will increase to 24 million in 2040. That increase, Huss said, means more older people and their advocates need to be aware of legal barriers to pet ownership as seniors move from their own family homes into smaller rental units, assisted living and so on.
Huss said that studies by her and other researchers have established that “pet owners showed greater self-esteem, greater levels of exercise and physical fitness and a tendency to be less lonely than non-owners.” Because of this, she and her colleagues have lobbied for more substantive legislation protecting the rights of homebound pet owners.
“Pet owners report that they believe that companion animals are good for their family’s health and that the presence of the animals reduce stress,” she said. “Animals seem to improve social interactions and promote social happiness and harmony. In fact, reports abound of older adults avoiding medical care through fear of being admitted to … residential care as this often means giving up a pet.”
Huss emphasized, “One issue facing many seniors is whether to transition from owned housing to rental housing. With few statutory exceptions, the owners of the rental housing may determine whether tenants are allowed to keep companion animals in their unites. As for continuing care and assisted-living facilities, as well as nursing homes. State regulation of these communities vary widely. Thus, potential residents should be aware of the effect that contractual provisions may have on companion animals.”
Humanity’s Best Friend?
“Man’s best friend” serves as a common phrase about domestic dogs, referring to their millennia-long history of close relations, loyalty and companionship with humans. The first recorded use of a related phrase is by Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740-1786). Likely popularized by its use in a poem by Ogden Nash, it has since become a common colloquialism.
Evidence of the benefits of a sustained relationship between humankind and dogs can be traced back at least as far as the 8th century BC to ancient Greece, found in the two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey both, according to legend, penned by Homer and considered landmarks in human literature as well as the beginning of Western literature and historical tradition.
In the Odyssey, upon Odysseus’ return, his beloved dog Argos is the only individual to recognize him. Argos will pass into the darkness of death, having fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after 20 years of separation. The story illustrates companionship among humans, but also, unfortunately reveals neglect towards “man’s best friend.”
Is the popular adage “man’s best friend” one that can be verified? It seems to have merit. For example, one medical expert says in “The Healing Power of Pets for Seniors,” an article written by Barbara Ballinger for AgingCare magazine, updated in August 2018, says “Animals can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and increase social interaction and physical activity. Pets provide other intangibles, too.”
“Dogs and cats live very much in the present,” said Jay P. Granat, a New Jersey-based psychotherapist. “They don’t worry about tomorrow, which can be a scary concept for an older person. An animal embodies that sense of here and now and it tends to rub off people.”
In the same article, a New York psychologist, Penny B. Donnenfeld, who brings her own dog to her office, says she’s witnessed animals’ ability to prompt better memory recall in their elderly owners.
“I’ve seen those with memory loss interact with an animal and regain access to memories from long ago,” she explains. “Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than their physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging.”
Kevin McNeir wrote this article for The Washington Informer, a Black-owned publication located in Washington, D.C., where he is the editor, with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation. An award-winning journalist and editor for African American publications, McNeir can be reached on Twitter @dkevinmcneir, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.