Pets and older people

Justine Hankins


I was out for a walk recently when a woman came bounding across the park to fuss over the dogs. “I’ve had dogs my entire life,” she said, “and I’d love to have another one, but it doesn’t seem fair at my age.” She was no spring chicken, I’ll grant her that, but she had buckets of vitality. We exchanged dog histories (hers was considerably longer than mine — I haven’t even owned that many pairs of boots) and swapped anecdotes about puppies and canine adventures. Here was a woman who clearly wanted a companion with whom to share her twilight years, but she was denying herself this simple happiness because she was worried about what might happen in one or five or 10 years’ time. This sense of responsibility towards animals is shared by many older people who decide not to take on another pet. Others may be advised that keeping a pet is “too much for you, dear”. My own grandmother used to say, “They’re a lot of worry” — but then, she said that about pansies, too. It’s true that animals can be a nuisance, a financial burden, one more thing to worry about — but they also bring enormous benefits. In a study conducted recently, it was found that pet owners consistently scored higher than non-pet owners in areas such as self-care, getting about the home, relating to others and life satisfaction.

The findings of the research were presented to a conference by the British charity Age Concern. Helena Herklots, Age Concern’s head of policy the conference helped “raise awareness of the importance of pets to people’s sense of wellbeing and quality of life”. One of the key issues discussed was the introduction of pets into sheltered housing and nursing.

Many older people are forced to give up their pets, and some may even avoid asking for support because they fear their pets will be taken away from them. June McNicholas, a psychologist who has researched the impact of housing policies on older pet owners, says,

“The process of growing older should not simply be seen in terms of giving up what were once important lifestyle choices.” The outcome of pet-friendly policies has been largely positive. Pets provide older people with structure and motivation, make residents more relaxed and sociable, and can make an institutional environment feel more like home. Older people tend to spend more time with their pets and often make dedicated carers. “They may be a bit frail,” says Liz Ormerod, a vet, “but they have a wealth of pet-keeping knowledge.” — The Guardian