There’s nothing like a pet’s love, and even non-pet owners could nod to the notion that the presence of a furry companion adds a dose of excitement and warmth to home life. And now, we have the numbers to prove it! The results of the National Poll on Healthy Aging that surveyed 2,051 US adults aged 50 to 80, conducted by the University of Michigan (U-M), suggests that pet ownership could do wonders to support older people’s health, from keeping them active to helping them cope with chronic conditions — but it can also have its drawbacks. A full report of the study was published at healthyagingpoll.org.
According to the poll, 55 per cent of older American adults are pet owners and over half of those in that group have more than one pet.
More than three-quarters of them say that pets help reduce their stress and almost as many say they give them a sense of purpose. The majority (two-thirds) say that their pets keep them active, with 78 per cent of those who owned dogs, in particular, echoing the same sentiment.
And the benefits don’t just stop with those who are in optimum health. Even for those who described themselves as being in fair or poor health, having a pet seemed to provide them with more benefits. More than 70 per cent of people in those categories say that their four-legged friends make it easier for them to cope with their symptoms, while 46 per cent say that they help take their mind off their pain.
These results don’t seem to come as a surprise to Cathleen Connell, PhD., a professor at U-M’s School of Public Health who also studied the roles pets play in older adults’, as she says that the benefits of pet ownership have been known for a long time. But that doesn’t mean that the importance of other relationships should be minimised, according to her, as she considers helping older adults find low-cost ways to own pets while not jeopardising their social and familial interactions a worthy “investment” on their overall health.
The director of the poll, Preeti Malani, M.D., who also has training in caring for older adults, believes that the survey indicates that doctors and other health care providers should understand the role that pets play in their patients’ lives. This is because although they help adults stay active because of their care requirements (dog walks, etc.) and how that’s almost always a good thing, around six per cent of poll respondents have reported falling or being injured because of a pet. She also adds that the loss of a pet can have devastating psychological consequences that healthcare professionals, friends and families of owners should be aware of.
Alison Bryant, Ph.D., senior vice president of research for AARP, an interest group for Americans aged 50+ that also sponsored this study, that this study underscores the importance of pets for older people’s wellbeing and that assisted living facilities have been catching on with this information by letting residents keep pets.
C is for companionship and connections
Of all the positives of pet-ownership highlighted by the poll, companionship was on top of the list for many respondents. In fact, over 50 per cent of owners actually said that they got a pet because they wanted a companion and a slightly higher number even revealed that they sleep next to theirs.
And the perks don’t stop with human/animal relationships, because 65 per cent also say that having pets help them foster social connections with other people.
Mary Janevic, Ph.D., MPH, an assistant research scientist at the U-M School of Public Health, who also helped design the poll says that in addition to the fact that relationships with pets tend to be less complicated, pets also help older people feel loved and needed.
…And costs and constraints
As with everything else in life, the study found that pet-ownership can come with a few downsides. For starters, Janevic says that pet-care can get expensive, especially if the owners have a limited income and the pets are sickly. She also points out that they limit where people can go for travel or leisure, and that this could be a problem for older people who might want to take advantage of their lighter schedule and travel or take part in other activities.
Janevic also says that people might even put their pets’ needs ahead of their own. In fact, a sixth of pet owners were found to do this. This figure climbs to a quarter for people living with chronic illnesses who might also struggle to care for them.
Why doesn’t everyone have a pet?
The remaining 45 per cent of those polled who said that they didn’t own a pet gave a variety of reasons for their decision.
For 42 per cent of this group, the prospect of being “tied down” while having a pet was enough to put them off the idea. Cost and time were issues for 23 and 20 per cent respectively, and another 16 per cent cited their own allergies or those of family member as a barrier.
But researchers say that even with these obstacles, people can still reap the benefits of being around animals in other ways like volunteering at animal shelters or pet-sitting.
So, are you thinking of bringing or adding a fur baby to your family? Or is stroking one every now and then more than enough? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Written by Tesneem Ayoub
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