The year of 2021 post COVID was a rough one for my family. Navigating the return to the classroom was difficult for my kids. My rambunctious teenage son struggled to sit at his desk and my tender-hearted daughter had been socially isolated from the 1st grade friend circle. We were all trying to navigate social interaction after coping with COVID social isolation. Surrounded by 300 classmates, yet each of them felt alone. Little did we know, the Universe was in the process of sending us a little helper.
It was Saturday morning and all were sleeping soundly in our beds until loud screams started coming from my son’s bedroom. “There is a dog in my bed!!!” I ran upstairs and sure enough sitting at the foot of his bed, licking his toes was a little Chihuahua.
Long story short, our backyard gate had a small opening in it, so small we assumed nothing could get through it (wrong!). This little dog had managed to climb through the hole in our gate, through the doggy door in our kitchen and found her way up the stairs to my son’s bedroom. Post surprise we did canvas the neighborhood, social media and local veterinary offices to find her owner but it was to no avail. As destiny would have it, this little Chihuahua, now known as Chica, would become a beloved member of our family and much needed support to both my son and daughter.
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France
Loneliness in the Elderly
Loneliness is defined as the feeling of being socially disconnected. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, declared loneliness as a global epidemic that is greatly impacting the physical and mental health of our aging population. Over 40% of people aged 65 years or older report feeling lonely. Despite the vast understanding of loneliness in the elderly, we struggle to combat its profound impact on poor health outcomes in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease. The medical field is often searching for the “magic pill” or the perfect technological breakthrough to “fix” a disease process. However, sometimes we often overlook the simple solutions that are right under our noses (or licking our toes).
Tackling Social Isolation and Loneliness
One way to tackle social isolation and/or loneliness in the elderly may come from the use of pets. The most supportive evidence to improve health outcomes stem from pet ownership and Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI). “Animal-assisted interventions are goal-oriented and structured interventions that intentionally incorporate animals in health, education, and human service for the purpose of therapeutic gains and improved health and wellness.” This is an overarching term that includes feeding, walking, grooming etc for an animal. However, even less structured interactions such as stroking an animal’s fur and/or actively observing an animal play has positive health benefits.
Pet Companionship = Higher Rates of Quality of Life
Older adults that engage in animal interactions and/or ownership have been shown to have better cognitive status, greater physical fitness and less mental health symptoms than their non pet owning/interacting counterparts. Community dwelling facilities that have “house pets” or allow residents to own pets, have residents that associate the pets with providing their lives with purpose, a sense of meaning and companionship and report higher rates of quality of life. Specifically animal interactions demonstrate effectiveness in calming agitated residents and/or decreasing behavioral issues. It is amazing that daily interactions with pets can offer so much benefit!
Are pet interactions a valid way to combat the loneliness epidemic? Can the answer to rising healthcare costs and geriatric hospital admissions be as simple as daily contact with animals? The most current research certainly makes a great case that animal interaction is a valid intervention to fight feelings of loneliness in the older adult.
Last minute gift idea: Animatronic or Living, there is a pet out there for you.