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Ed and Nimo
Considering the 'pet-health effect' in older age
I’m an older trail runner in the dog-friendly Oakland hills, which is amongst redwoods and oaks and habitat to many animal species. I run early in the morning with Luke, my Australian Cattle Dog.
There are fewer humans between 6:45 and 7:00 am, when I start—mostly, older folks like me. There’s Missy with her two, white Golden Retrievers and an older gentleman with his cute, little white dog (maybe a terrier mix). Our paths cross, and over time, we’ve exchanged words beyond a ‘hello’.
The other day I noticed the little white dog with another older gentleman. I asked where his regular companion was, and the man told me that Ed (that’s when I learned his name) had fallen; and this was his neighbor, who had offered to take NImo for a walk. The neighbor added Ed had gone to the ER and hopefully, would improve soon.
Later, I spotted Ed back on the trail with Nimo. I introduced myself and my dog, and we chatted about his recent health incident. Previously, I had also seen Ed make friends with two crows, Jekyll and Hekyll (as he calls them), who wait for him every morning to feed them after his walk with Nimo. Having created such a network of friends on his walks, it was no wonder he was anxious to be out there again, only a day after his visit to the ER, while still unstable on his feet.
Especially in older age, as well as for those of us who live alone or work from home, an animal companion can play a key role in our daily lives. They get us out of bed in the morning, establish a routine, are our canine exercise coaches, let us mollycoddle them and, perhaps most importantly, connect us with other humans.
Various studies confirm that a bond with an animal contributes to our health in many ways. The “pet-health effect” as I call it is real and those who have pets feel it. In a survey conducted by the National Poll on Aging in 2018, a majority of respondents confirmed that pets positively contributed to their health and well-being—from reducing stress and providing purpose to connecting with others and keeping them physically active—and—one out of four respondents put their pets’ needs over their own.
Indeed, Ed might have delayed his visit to the hospital because of Nimo. When I ran into her on the trail this morning, Missy told me that she needs a knee replacement but is delaying the surgery because of her two dogs.
How could we make sure that those who benefit from the “pet-health effect” can easily access it at any age?
What if there was a question about pet ownership on medical intake forms or if it was part of your annual medical check up ? What if your doctor could discuss the possibilities of adopting a pet as part of a health and wellness plan because your Medicare Advantage plan also covered a vet check up and the Advanced Care Directive included a plan for your pet in the event of your death? Imagine the health benefits if an older pet owner could get a procedure done or see their doctor without worrying about their pet because an animal daycare was part of a medical center.
The results of a recent study by Jessica Bibbo, a scientist at the Center for Research and Education at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, provide empirical evidence that pets do impact the health and healthcare decisions of older adults and make a strong case for including pet ownership in conversations about senior housing, caregiving, transportation, and more.
From a physical design perspective It does not take much for age-friendly homes and housing to be pet inclusive. Pet-friendly adaptations are also age-friendly adaptations. A floor that is easy to maintain, a hand-held shower in the bathroom, and safe access to the outdoors benefit both older humans and their animal companions. City governments, social and healthcare systems need to recognize and integrate the human-animal bond as an effective, non-medical contributor to healthy aging in their planning and programs.
To join the conversation on the vital link between animals and human health, come to Creature Comforts, our 4th annual agein on June 17 in San Francisco. For more information or to register, visit At Home with Growing Older.
Practical tips and resources:
(Most resources are in the San Francisco Bay Area but look for similar programs in your area.)
Relationship with animals:
Muttville: Senior dog adoption agency in San Francisco. They match senior canines with senior humans and also have a drop in cuddle club, for those who cannot or do not want to adopt.
Thulani: Senior German Dog Rescue Agency.
San Francisco SPCA’s Sido Pet Protection Program: When pets outlive their guardians, cats and dogs enrolled in Sido are taken into the SF SPCA’s Adoption Program. They receive exceptional care and attention while the SF SPCA works to place them in a loving home.
Studies about the health benefits of pet ownership for older adults:
Pet ownership and Aging (Jessica Bibbo)
Caregiving for an Aging Pet Owner (Jessica Bibbo)
At Home, On Air, ‘Pet Ownership is ‘Medicine’. Listen to the conversation with Jessica Bibbo from April 27, 2023.
‘How pets contribute to healthy aging’, National Poll On Aging Report
Organizations that help defray the cost of pet ownership:
Tips for making a home pet-friendly:
Linoleum or Marmoleum: Environmentally-friendly flooring that comes in a wide variety of colors and is either sold in roles (sheet flooring) or tiles.
Wood or cork flooring with high-strength traffic coating.
Luxury Vinyl Flooring (LVT): Often comes in wood patterns.
Hand showers: If you decide to bathe your pet at home, you need a handshower. You can replace a wall-mounted shower head with a hand shower mounted on a bar. This is relatively easy since plumbing connections are standardized. One of my favorite hand showers is this one with a hand hold by Moen.
Stairs: Safe indoor and outdoor stairs are especially important with a dog, who can divert your attention or pull on the leash. Note that stairs are also a challenge for many larger senior dogs.
Housekeeping: Your furry friends shed hair and may have an occasional accident. Make sure that you take this into account not only in terms of flooring materials but also your cleaning protocol and tools (such as handheld vacuum cleaners).
Food Area: Elevated food bowls may be more comfortable for you and your animal companion and also reduce trip hazards. They come in many styles, sizes and prices.