Aging with animals: Pets can help older adults, but they come with challenges

Dot Boucher pets her dog Pooch at the dog park in White Oak Park on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Pooch, a former North Shore neighborhood stray, spent years on the run, too skittish for anyone to catch, before 79-year-old Dot Boucher was finally able to coax him into her life.

"We were not, at our age, going to get another dog," she said of her and husband Tom Boucher, 80. Then, Pooch was diagnosed with asymptomatic heartworm disease, and he found his forever home.

"We figured nobody else would take him with his health condition, you know, and now he'd be the greatest loss," Dot Boucher said. "He's just been a joy, just a sheer joy. He makes me happy all the time."

It took Pooch longer to warm up to Tom Boucher, but that doesn't stop them from taking four good walks a day.

"With Pooch, he gives me a good exercise, so I think it's keeping me healthy," he said.

A growing body of research suggests companion animals play an important role in the health and well-being of many older adults. But seniors who seek the possible benefits of pet ownership, such as increased physical activity, lower blood pressure and improved mental health, can also face unexpected challenges.

Although any age can experience the positives of animal companionship, certain stressors that typically occur later life - chronic disease, reduced mobility, bereavement or a drop in socioeconomic status with retirement - put older people at risk for psychological distress that a pet may help alleviate.

"Over and over again, I've heard pets described as a lifeline," said Ann Toohey, who studies human-animal interactions at the University of Calgary.

Speaking at a conference in Boston last week, Toohey said for some people, companion animals provide purpose and a reason to get out of bed in the morning, which can be especially important for isolated older adults with shrinking social networks.

But economic hardship, physical or cognitive decline and changing living situations that become more likely with age can make pet ownership a "mixed blessing" for seniors, said Elizabeth Strand, director of veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Pets can become particularly problematic if a senior must give up an animal to move to assisted living or a nursing home.

"The grief and bereavement of having to relinquish the animal impacts not only the elder, but also the social service agency that has to find a home for that animal and then the animal shelters who now have an unwanted animal," Strand said.

Even when family or friends are willing to help, complex ethical dilemmas over ownership and veterinary care can arise, so it's important for owners to establish backup plans for their animals early in life.

"People often don't make plans for their pets and what will happen to the pet?" Strand said. "In situations where an elder is starting to lose their cognitive capacity, being able to sign ownership of the animal over to the child can be very helpful."

As the number of Americans age 65 and older is expected to double to 88.5 million by 2050, many cities - including Chattanooga - are examining ways to prepare their infrastructure and improve livability across the aging spectrum.

Strand said some communities have developed creative programs for aging individuals in need of animal care services, like vet students from UT's College of Veterinary Medicine delivering meals on wheels for pets.

The World Health Organization cites eight age-friendly priorities that cities and communities can address to better adapt to the needs of older people: the built environment, transport, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication, and community support and health services.

Given the important role of companion animals for many seniors, Toohey said policy makers should also consider older adults living with animals, and that aging in place with pets may not be equal for people living in different types of social and socioeconomic circumstances.

"One of the age-friendly priorities is to ensure access to community support services, and I think this needs to include not just human-social support, but services that help to protect the human-animal bond," Toohey said, "especially for those people for whom having a companion animal is their only form of social support."

She shared the story of Louise, a 75-year-old woman who chose eviction over giving up her kitten when she was unable to find affordable housing that allowed pets.

"A lot of older adults would like to be and currently are living with companion animals as they grow older in communities," Toohey said. "Whereas some of us are privileged enough to own our homes and go along as we age with relationships with our companion animals, others face barriers that disrupt the health promoting potential of those really important relationships."

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.