Meet Samantha, a Shih Tzu and Cairn Terrier Mix
The sun creeps through the corners of the drapes as the alarm clock begins to ring, but Susan is already awake. Samantha has been digging and burrowing, licking and wagging her tail for 15 minutes. It’s time to wake up! Susan gives Sam a pat behind the ears and slides her feet into her slippers. Sam jumps off the bed and heads into the kitchen. It’s time for breakfast.
Susan Bailey, 70, of Greenville, North Carolina has been a widow since 2009. She and her husband, a retired Air Force pilot, traveled extensively during the beginning of their retirement, but after his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, she found herself caring for him around the clock. After he passed, Susan looked to Samantha, a Shih Tzu and Cairn Terrier mix, to provide companionship. Aubrey Fine, EdD, a professor of education at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, who has authored several books on animal-assisted therapy and the human/animal bond, finds “that animals can contribute to our quality of life. Interaction with animals lets older adults know that you still can be a giver and receiver of devotion and care.” It turns out that pets are good for our emotional and physical well-being. Subtle physical, social, and emotional benefits – including grief coping – may be the reasons why a person owns, loves, or spends time with an animal.
Seniors who have pets as companions experience less stress, lower blood pressure, increased physical activity, enhanced heart health, and are less likely to experience loneliness and depression. Linda Anderson, who founded the Angel Animals Network in Minneapolis with her husband Allen, says, “Older pet owners have often told us how incredibly lonely their lives were without their pet’s companionship.”
Pets not only enhance the lives of senior adults but also aid in their daily health and well-being. Pet owners are more motivated to take care of themselves when they’re responsible for a pet. Psychologist Penny B. Donnenfeld says, “Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging.”
Pets, especially dogs, require maintenance in the mornings and provide an easy reason to get out of bed. Their tail is wagging, and they are ready to greet you to start the day. In a recent study from the University of Missouri – MU College of Veterinary Medicine, results indicated that people with higher degrees of pet bonding were more likely to walk their dogs and spend more time walking them than those with weaker bonds. Additionally, the study showed that pet walking offered a means of socializing for pet owners. Rebecca Johnson, PhD, a professor at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine and the Millsap Professor of Gerontological Nursing in the Sinclair School of Nursing and Director of the Research center for Human Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) tells:
Retirement communities also could be encouraged to incorporate more pet-friendly policies such as including dog walking trails and dog exercise areas so that their residents could have access to the health benefits, Johnson said.
Dr. Rebecca Johnson is also the Director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) from the University of Missouri. This well-versed program conducts research investigating the human-animal bond and includes grief counseling services to those who have lost pets.
After Susan retired from her career as a Music Therapist, she began to work as an author. Samantha, her most honest critic, hears most of the drafted manuscripts before they are even touched by another human. This four-legged friend adds tremendous value to Susan’s life every day, in fact, they take care of one another. Interacting with animals enables us to talk about life in the present, Aubrey Fine, EdD says. “We love to feel needed. Animals provide a positive alternative [to isolation] and give elders a sense of purpose.” Pet ownership can help improve our self-esteem, boost our sense of self-worth, and help us cope with our losses. Choosing to take care of a pet is a promise to continue being involved in another life, a possible positive decision you can make as you grow older.
Susan and Samantha go on numerous walks each day, they bond over their sessions of rope tug of war, and Samantha even bounces from lap to lap during Susan’s weekly poker game. People of all ages can benefit from owning a pet, including seniors. Pets make good companions, they are dependable and loyal, and they enjoy walking or lounging. There’s nothing like coming home to a wagging tail and a smiling face.