Fighting Loneliness – Pet Therapy for the Elderly

For many, retirement and old age is a welcome stage of life with few responsibilities, and a lot of time to pursue interests. To others, it brings on that dreaded feeling which no amount of pills and doctor appointments can cure – loneliness. According to AARP, over a third of Americans over 45 years are lonely. Retirement, decreased mobility and income source are all contributing factors to increased social isolation. Studies show that loneliness puts the individual in greater risk of diseases and illness, and greatly impacts their well-being and quality of life.

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A variety of interventions are in place to combat loneliness in the geriatric population. They focus on various high risk groups and employ various individual and group approaches. There are also several programs in place, including social and cultural outings, health promotion, community engagement and group support. However, few show direct improvement in reducing loneliness among the elderly. A study comparing eighteen different interventions in Netherlands concluded that only two of them significantly reduced loneliness – one, an individual, at-home intervention for the elderly with chronic disease, and two, a group intervention in a residential home that included discussion and coffee breaks. There is limited success in identifying and employing interventions that significantly reduce loneliness

Another lesser known intervention to battle loneliness is the use of companion animals. Pet ownership and interaction positively contribute to the overall wellbeing of elderly citizens as pets can instil a sense of responsibility and purpose in the elderly, and provide much solace from loneliness. The role of Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is increasingly being explored in elderly care. AAT is a formal, documented process with scheduled sessions and a treatment goal. AAT most commonly uses dogs, but is not restricted to fish, rabbits, cats, horses and dolphins. AAT should not be confused with service animals, and animal-assisted activities (AAA). Service animals and AAA are more spontaneous and do not necessarily have a treatment goal. Both AAT and AAA can help in increasing social behaviors, interaction with people as well and decreasing loneliness among the elderly.

In addition to temporary animal companionship, several organizations also look to provide seniors with the opportunity of pet ownership. The ‘Seniors for Seniors’ program is employed among many non-profits and animal shelters across the United States. This program looks to place adult dogs and cats with willing and able senior citizens. Since older dogs are usually house-broken, trained, and come with a fully developed personality, they can serve as great companions to the elderly.Several animal welfare organizations such as SAVE, Paws and the North Shore Animal League America successfully run such a program, often providing financial and other support to senior adopters. Pets for the Elderly Foundation, is a non-profit solely focused to this cause. It provides financial support to adoption centers around the United States that place dogs and cats with senior citizens.

Animal therapy, in all its forms, is a burgeoning field of study in geriatric care. There are only a handful of scientific studies documenting the efficacy of AAT on loneliness, but current research shows positive trends. Despite the challenges of working with animals, the therapeutic role companion animals can play in fighting loneliness is promising.

Namratha Rao is currently pursuing her MSPH in International Health in Social and Behavioral Interventions at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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