The positive effects that pets have on human health can be applied to all age groups but perhaps the greatest benefit that companion animals bring to the elderly is their ability to help them cope with loss. Loss refers not only to the death of close relatives or friends but also to the loss of a job following retirement and the loss of children once they have left home. The bereavement of a spouse can include the loss of a confidante and possible social isolation, thus compounding the effect of prolonged stress. Investigations into the effects of bereavement on the elderly have shown that pet owners suffered significantly less depression than those without pets (Hart 1995). Job loss and the lack of having someone to nurture are factors known to cause low self-esteem and pets can play a vital role in fulfilling the need to nurture and giving reassurance of self-worth (Enders-Slegers 2000).
A dog will encourage its owner to take regular exercise, which is of great value to cardiovascular health, and now research has revealed that exercise plays a major role in avoiding hip fracture (Hart 1995). It has been said that pets encourage social interaction with other humans but this is not necessarily exclusive to pet ownership. Simply being an animal lover can help to forge relationships with other enthusiasts. An investigation carried out in old people's homes discovered that pet visitation greatly improved social discourse among the residents and elicited bonding with the volunteers who had brought the animals. Surprisingly, the animals were not the main focus of attention but their presence appeared to encourage the residents to share personal information about their past and present lives by recreating a domestic environment (Hart 1995).
People who do not like animals will gain nothing from their presence, but there are many other practical reasons why the elderly do not keep pets. Some elderly fear abandoning a pet through illness or death or are concerned about not being able to cope with the loss of yet another pet. Others worry about the extra work a pet can create and a lack of financial resources. Residential homes in particular often do not allow their patients to keep pets but there is a growing awareness of the needs of the elderly and the benefits of companion animals and many homes allow therapeutic visits from volunteers with friendly pets. An organisation, the Cinnamon Trust, was formed to assist the elderly in looking after their pets in their own homes. The aim is to preserve the relationship between owners and their pets by providing practical help to care for the animal through a network of volunteers. For example, a volunteer may walk the dog of an owner who is housebound. Foster homes will take care of an animal whose owner faces a spell in hospital and the owner is kept in touch with their pet through visits, photographs or letters. Elderly people become lonely and depressed when a pet dies but, by replacing it with a bereaved pet from one of the Cinnamon Trust sanctuaries, a very special new bond can be formed.
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