Pets and Parents

This week’s New Yorker magazine (Oct.12) presents three covers showing the progression of a well-dressed woman’s purchase of a fast food hamburger, for—it turns out—her French poodle.

An article in today’s New York Times Science Section (page D5), “Exploring the Health Benefits of Pets” discusses the effect of pets on children’s well being. While it focuses on children, the next-to-the-last paragraph mentions an Alzheimer’s patient’s recognition of her beloved dog.

If we’ve had a pet, we know the inexplicable bond. This is no doubt a reason why gifting a pet to older parents who seem to need a jump-start, or are lonely, has crossed the mind of many adult children. That may—or may not—be a good idea.

“Social connectedness,” according to the major studies, is one of the three most important factors in successful aging. It is such a normal part of living that we take it for granted. If we are alert we will know when the social connectedness void begins to infiltrate our parents’ lives.

Whether pets qualify as offering social connectedness no doubt depends on the people and pets involved. We know pets provide companionship; their antics provide entertainment. They “stir up the dust;” usually give unconditional love, and give purpose to their owner’s life. A 2002 study found that older people who had pets experienced better overall physical and mental health than those who didn’t.

Halise Diamond, DVM at the Animal Referral and Emergency Center in Mesa, Arizona, reminds us that pets add so much to people’s lives, but they’re also a responsibility. She emphasizes that their care should be in keeping with an older person’s strength and mental ability. For example, a forgetful pet owner who doesn’t feed or overfeeds a pet, neglects its medications or overmedicates, can cause a pet serious problems, even death. If older parents have a pet and are becoming forgetful, Dr. Diamond recommends a calendar on which a pet’s needed medications are written and then crossed off once given.

If we contemplate giving a pet–to anyone actually–we need to consider:

Does the person want a pet? (Dr. Diamond emphasizes this is true no matter the age of the intended recipient.)

If an older person is on a fixed income, consider the cost of medical care—even routine check ups can be expensive.

If mobility is a problem, a dog that needs a lot of exercise is a problem.

Puppies require a lot of training and older people aren’t as forgiving as younger people when their possessions are chewed and scratched.

Rescue cats and dogs are older and more mellow.

The staff at a good shelter knows why pets have been relinquished and should be able to select pets that are appropriate for older people.

Some birds live a long time and may outlive an elderly owner. Hmmmm. Do I want a bird?

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