Information and resources that support your role in caring for a loved one.

Editor’s note: The Caregiving Chronicles blog has partnered with the Natick Visiting Nurse Association to bring additional expert information and advice to the MetroWest caregivers we strive to serve at CaregivingMetroWest.org. The Natick VNA has allowed Caregiving Chronicles to get some valuable insight from its staff for our ongoing series of Q&A sessions with caregiving experts. 

In this entry, we discuss the benefits and concerns of having and interacting with pets for older adults and caregivers. Providing insight is Juanita Allen Kingsley, Wilderness EMT, who is the Director of Business Development for Natick VNA. 

A health educator, she trains more than 2,000 people in the MetroWest region annually through her First Aid, Wilderness First Aid, CPR and AED classes in addition to the variety of health and safety programs she teaches. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Boston University and completed EMT training at Northeastern University. She received her Wilderness EMT training certification through Mountain Aid Training International.

For more information, visit www.natickvna.org or call 508-651-1786.

Caregiving MetroWest: What are some of the physical benefits of having a pet for older adults and caregivers?
Juanita Allen Kingsley:
The benefits of pet ownership are many. Pets, especially a dog, can keep us moving as they enjoy their walks. Dog walking is associated with lower body mass index, fewer doctor visits and more frequent exercise. Studies show lower blood pressure and a decrease in heart disease as additional benefits

CGMW: What about the emotional and mental benefits to having a pet?
Caring for a pet can reduce an elder’s loneliness and reduce the risk of depression. Our pets enjoy our company whether we’re having a good day or a bad day. Owning a pet can also provide social benefits as dog walking is also a social activity. Pets are born listeners and don’t mind hearing the same story over and over again.

CGMW: There are also some risks with an older adult keeping a pet, such as potential falls, being able to take care of the pet both physically and financially, or living in a residence that might not allow pets. How should older adults, or maybe more importantly, their caregivers deal with such issues and are there other concerns they should consider?
 The risk of falls is greatly increased for pet-owning elderly. Every year, 21,000 seniors are hospitalized from falls related to pets. Falls can result from tripping over pet paraphernalia. Falls can occur while walking pets. Pets can get underfoot and trip you. You can fall chasing a pet. Dogs jumping can cause a fall.

One recommendation is that elders adopt a dog who is already full grown and trained. A small dog may be more appropriate for an elderly owner. Some breeds require less exercise and may be a better choice as well.

CGMW: Can pets be particularly helpful for someone with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia? How can pets potentially help with some of the troubling behaviors that dementia causes?
 In the later stages of dementia, it’s important to work with as many senses as we can. Being able to touch a dog is a tactile exercise. Some patients have even smiled, spoken or taken a genuine interest for the first time in years upon meeting or getting to know a therapy dog. A therapy dog can invoke happy memories to a patient who may feel that his or her world is slowly changing into something unrecognizable.

Many people living with dementia who are receiving full-time care in a nursing home long for the comfort of places, things and people they once knew, and therapy dogs can remind them of the pets they once had.  Especially for patients who may be in the later stages of the disease and who are having extreme memory difficulties, therapy dogs can be an excellent source of comfort.

CGMW: If owning their own pet is not a suitable option, there are animals trained for pet therapy that can visit older adults in the home or a long-term care facility. What are the benefits of pet therapy and are there any concerns caregivers should consider with this option?
Therapy dogs that visit older adults in long term care facilities can bring much joy and a change in pace to elders. They are often beloved by residents. However, there is a concern about therapy dogs carrying MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, an infection is caused by a type of staph bacteria) and C-difficile (Clostridium Difficile, a bacterium that causes diarrhea) from one resident to the next.

One can easily imagine an elder who has not washed her hands after using the bathroom or blowing her nose petting the therapy dog and then the therapy dog is petted or kissed by another resident. Good hand hygiene is extremely important to emphasize when animals are visiting many different residents.

CGMW: Are there any different benefits or issues of concern for the type of animal an older adult or caregiver has as a pet? Dogs are the most common, especially for pet therapy, but what other animals can also be beneficial for older adults or caregivers to have?
 Cats can be wonderfully affectionate and lower maintenance than dogs. Cats are happy staying indoors all the time. Cats are also very content to spend most of their time sleeping on their owner’s lap or bed.

CGMW: Is there anything else older adults or caregivers should know about pets?
 Pets can be a wonderful addition to our elders, no matter what stage of life we are in. We have a special example of that in our lives. Several years ago, our neighbor was 94 years old. Her long time canine companion had died and her daughter was adamant that her mother not take on another pet. My husband and I work full time and as our black lab became older, we often felt sad that he was left alone all day. And there was a match made in Heaven!

Every morning we walked Scotty over to Franny’s house. She would be waiting for him. His tail never wagged as much as when he saw her. For three years, until Franny entered a skilled nursing facility at 97, Franny and Scotty spent their days together, sleeping much of the day, but also sitting outside in the sunshine when the weather was good. They absolutely adored each other. There are creative ways that elders can have some of the joys of pet ownership without all of the duties of such.

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