Animals can do so many wonderful things for us humans, including offering companionship and comfort. But researchers are finding they have an ability to actually make us healthier, too. One of these points is proven when we look at the benefits of animal-assisted therapy to the health of older individuals. To find out more about how animals can be used to help make senior citizens healthier, keep reading below.
What is animal-assisted therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy refers to a growing field that uses animals (most frequently dogs and horses) to help people better cope with a variety of different health issues, ranging from heart disease and cancer to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. These specially trained animals are brought to visit patients in the hospital, in nursing or rehabilitative homes, or in health professionals’ offices.
Animal-assisted therapy can also involve a person owning an emotional support animal (ESA). An ESA is a pet that lives with the person and offers comfort around the clock. These animals can be taken to doctor’s or therapist’s offices to help the patient during different treatments or in therapy sessions.
Animals used in therapy or ESAs can be a wide range of pets, from the more traditional dogs, cats, or horses to the more unconventional pigs, birds, ferrets, etc. There are even forms of dolphin therapy where patients experience comfort and increased physical abilities through swimming and working with dolphins.
Basically, it doesn’t matter what type of animal a person finds comfort with – even snakes or reptiles can work great as ESAs if they provide the person with a positive place to put their love and energy.
What are the benefits of using this type of therapy?
There are many advantages to animal-assisted therapy – the biggest one being that animals can provide people with comfort due to their calm, loving nature. They can also serve as a helpful distraction away from distressing health issues. While pet-assisted therapy works for all ages – from small children to senior citizens – many people are specifically touting its positive effects with older folks.
So, how does pet therapy help the elderly? Researchers have found that older adults and animal therapy are a great combination because animals can help improve health by:
- Increasing self-esteem and boosting confidence
- Improving social skills and encouraging social interactions
- Lowering risk of depression and anxiety
- Reducing loneliness and isolation
- Increasing activity and fitness levels
- Improving mobility and physical skills
- Lowering blood pressure
- Recovering more quickly from medical conditions, procedures, surgeries, etc.
- Needing to use less prescribed medications
- Requiring less frequent visits to the doctor
These benefits can be found with a variety of different pet-assisted therapy options, including equine therapy with horses or just owning an ESA dog or cat at home.
Should seniors have pets?
Because animal-assisted therapy is so successful, it’s easy to see the many benefits of pets for senior citizens. Aside from improving a person’s emotional state, animals can also provide mental benefits for older adults (especially those living with cognitive impairments such as dementia or Alzheimer’s).
These benefits include:
- Improved mental and memory stimulation
- Increased socialization
- Improved planning and execution of plans (mainly involved with the pet’s day-to-day care)
Pets are also known to give a person a renewed sense of purpose or meaning in their life, which can be really helpful for older adults who are suffering from depression or hopelessness. Caring for a pet can keep them busy and also provide them with a lot of joy. Plus, a pet’s calming nature can help limit negative or harmful behaviors associated with some mental impairments.
Overall, pets can help with everything from decreasing risk of heart attack to improving sleep patterns. Having a calm, centered presence can help make a person feel more secure and safe as well. Plus, because senior citizens can be faced with many challenges as they get older, pets can also be a wonderful way to combat feelings of despair or loneliness.
How can seniors find animal-assisted therapy options?
There are a variety of ways that older adults can access animal-assisted therapy. If a person is a patient at a hospital or a residential nursing home, they can enquire with staff about having access to this type of therapy. They might be able to arrange visits with service animals or specific therapy options that can help improve their health.
Seniors living on their own can adopt a pet that can be certified as a registered ESA. If they want to engage in external animal-assisted therapy, they can check with their health providers for options located near them. The only downside is that it can be rare for health insurance companies to cover these costs because it’s not a traditional treatment option. But hopefully, the more that health providers can see the benefits of animals to the health and happiness of their patients, insurance companies will start to cover these types of therapies more often.
Just spending a small amount of time (even 10 or 15 minutes) with animals can increase helpful hormones in a person’s brain – dropping stress levels and increasing serotonin and dopamine (the ‘feel-good’ hormones). With this kind of result, older adults can reap the benefits of animal-assisted therapy or of owning an ESA right away.