If you’ve ever woken up to a dog’s cold, wet nose in your face, then you know true happiness.
Now, the happiness may not be radiating from you. You’re probably not thrilled to find that nose right there. But the dog? Boy is that dog happy just to see you awake at long last. It’s been, what, eight hours or so since you were last up, after all.
But after the immediate annoyance and shock wears off, you can’t help but feel happy yourself. Because that’s what our pets, whether it be a dog or cat, fish or bird, do for us. They bring us a steady reservoir of happiness to dip into whenever we need it. They’re just simply happy we’re there, regardless of what the weather is like or how early it is.
And that doesn’t change as we age.
Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services is proud to partner with several local shelters to provide older adults with doses of animal happiness. The volunteer service, Chicago Cares, and cat shelter, Tree House Humane Society, help with this mission by bringing cats and dogs into our communities. They are a huge hit with residents.
“The overwhelming response is one of sheer delight!” said Ann Brennan, Coordinator of Volunteer Programs and Development Administration at CMSS. “It’s easy to see the joy, even when people are unable to verbally communicate.”
Volunteers from Chicago Cares will often bring their pets for one-on-one visits, leading to some great moments for residents. In addition to one-on-one visits, CMSS recently hosted Yappy Hour, a social event that brought together residents with volunteers and their dogs. The event, held on March 12, 2016, was a joyous afternoon for residents, volunteers and dogs alike. CMSS residents enjoyed spending time with the dogs and feeding them homemade dog treats, and volunteers received unique artistic portraits of their canine to take as a memento.
“We have one dog who gets so excited every time she sees someone who has tennis balls on the legs of their walker,” Brennan said. “I’m not sure who gets the most enjoyment out of the visits: the residents, the dogs who love the attention or the volunteer who sees how much fun their dog and the residents are having!”
Physical, Emotional and Mental Benefits
Studies have shown that pets provide positive physical benefits for people of all ages, but especially so for older adults.
According to Pets for the Elderly, a study of 5,741 people at the Baker Medical Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, showed that “pet owners had lower blood pressure and triglyceride and cholesterol levels than did non-owners – a result that could not be explained by such personal differences as cigarette smoking, diet, weight or socio-economic profile.”
The Center for Disease Control also notes that having a pet can lead to increased exercise, which is essential to leading a healthy life.
Even if people do not own a pet, Brennan noted, any time spent around an animal can be extremely beneficial, especially for those who live in a skilled nursing community.
The physical health benefits pets can have on older adults is arguably secondary to the emotional and mental benefits they can provide. Interactions with a pet have been proven to lead to a healthier and happier life for seniors.
“Consistent interaction with a pet has been shown to cause lower levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol, and an increased release of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which can help calm and soothe a person’s body,” Brennan said. “This can be helpful for people with memory loss, as regular pet visits may help to decrease unwanted behaviors and calm their agitation.”
The release of these chemicals can lead to reduced anxiety and depression. A pet also encourages us to socialize more. Whether it be socializing with the animal or socializing with others through the animal, a pet encourages a healthier lifestyle.
In an article about the role pets play in the lives of people with depression published by Carrington College, Alan Beck, the director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, said, “All people report feeling less lonely in the presence of animals – even birds. Animals are good for everyone, but particularly for anxious and depressed people. For one thing, pets keep us anchored in the present and distract us from negative or anxious thoughts.”
This sentiment of how animals keep us grounded and block our negative thoughts is of huge importance to older adults. As we age, it becomes even more important to focus on the positive aspects of our lives. We deal with physical change more often, are more likely to deal with the loss of close friends, and face a higher risk of depression. Having a companion by your side can make a world of difference.
People of all ages can reap the physical, emotional and mental benefits that come from spending time with pets. Older adults are no different, and we should not forget this. Sometimes the best medicine can simply be an animal’s smiling face.
If you’re interested in volunteering with your pet to bring joy to older adults at Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services, please visit Volunteer.
More photos from Yappy Hour: