How Pets Can Emotionally Help Seniors Moving Into Assisted Living Facilities

Some assisted living facilities not only offer pet-friendly environments but also have staff who help residents care for their pets.

two residents petting a dog

Seniors often move into assisted living communities when they are ready for help with daily activities, such as dressing, bathing, and meals. It might seem counterintuitive then that people who live in assisted living facilities would benefit from having a pet that needs caring for on a daily basis.

But research shows pets can offer seniors some pretty powerful physical and mental health benefits, and some assisted living facilities even have staff who can help residents care for their pets.

Pet Therapy

Also known as animal-assisted therapy, pet therapy is a technique that uses animals to interact with seniors for numerous reasons to help improve their quality of life.

Loneliness, isolation, and depression are growing epidemics among the senior population. Pet therapy is recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health as a viable option for treating depression and other mood disorders. In a recent survey by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, 74 percent of pet owners said having a pet improved their mental health.

Research shows that pets can boost levels of serotonin, the feel-good hormone, and reduce cortisol, the stress hormone and that just 15 minutes spent bonding with an animal promotes positive changes within the brain.

Pet-Friendly Communities

Some assisted living communities not only offer pet-assisted therapy but also allow residents to bring their pets with them, which can help ease the transition to assisted living.

Having a pet opens the door for social interaction, acting as “social lubricants” for seniors who may not be outgoing individuals by nature. Pet owners often become friends themselves, with the topic of their pets breaking the ice and starting discussions.

“Pet ownership appears to be a significant factor for facilitating social interaction and friendship formation within neighborhoods,” writes Dr. Lisa Wood, associate professor at the University of Western Australia, and her colleagues in a study, published online in the journal PLoS One. “For pet owners, this also translates into new sources of social support, both of a practical and emotionally supportive nature.”

Pet-friendly assisted living facilities typically allow cats, small- to medium-sized dogs, and other small pets. Some communities have a weight restriction, limiting the pets to small birds, cats, dogs, fish or rabbits, and other communities only allow pets on a case-by-case basis.

Pet Care in Assisted Living Communities

Pets provide seniors with a sense of purpose and can boost their self-esteem because they need and rely on their owners for virtually every aspect of their care. Some seniors need help providing that care, though, which is why some assisted living facilities not only offer pet-friendly environments but also have staff who help residents care for their pets.

“It’s so important seniors don’t have to give up their pets,” says Carly Pruit, life enhancement coordinator at Highgate Senior Living, which offers pet-friendly communities and staff to help care for them. Pets are part of the assisted living community’s holistic approach to health and wellness that focuses on the mind, body, and spirit.

“Pets do more than just enhance the life of that one resident,” Pruit says. “They enhance the lives of everybody.”

For more information about what a holistic approach to health care looks like in assisted living, download our Guide to Holistic Healthcare for Older Adults.

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