Can Pets Help to Manage Grief in Seniors?

a white furred puppy

Losing a loved one is extremely stressful and many people find that the grief they experience affects them physically.

  • Sometimes, a person’s body reacts to the grief as if it is a threat. The immune system responds to this threat by making the tissues in the body swell. Inflammation can contribute to heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, and possibly cancer. Some studies show that the more severe the grief, the more serious the inflammation.
  • Grief can be emotionally exhausting. After a loss, people often find that they have trouble falling asleep, wake up in the middle of the night, or sleep too much.
  • Some people find that they can’t concentrate as well as they used to and that their memory is less sharp.

Usually, a strong feeling of loneliness comes with grief. According to a new study of social isolation published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in May, like grief, loneliness can also affect your health.

New Research Shows that Pets can Help to Manage Grief in Seniors

Researchers at Florida State University studied 437 older adults, some of whom lost a spouse, either through divorce or death. They found that having a cat or dog at home was linked to an easing of loneliness and depression.

In the study, over a four-year period, the researchers compared the mental health of people who stayed married to those who didn’t. They also looked at whether owning a dog or cat had any effect on mental health. The study found that while all people who became widowed or divorced did have some decline in their mental health, having a pet seemed to make a difference. Patients without pets who experienced such a loss had an average of 2.6 symptoms of depression, but that fell to just 1.2 symptoms for those with pets.

The Ups and Downs of Having a Pet

Pets can increase the risk for falls in older adults. As people age, their vision and sense of balance weakens. This may cause them to trip over their pets. In addition, having a pet is an expense.

But it looks like the pros outweigh the cons. And here’s why:

  • Spending time with a pet releases endorphins. Endorphins have a calming effect and reduce levels of stress.
  • Taking care of a pet gives seniors a sense of purpose and boosts their self-confidence and improves self-esteem.
  • Seniors who own pets are more likely to get recommended levels of exercise. As a result, they have lower blood pressure and less stress.

Since it seems clear that having a pet can help to manage grief in seniors, some elder care facilities are moving towards having resident animals or encouraging volunteers to bring in their pets.