Pets Can Boost Health of Seniors

SAN FRANCISCO–Up to five times a day Gary Allen can be found walking his dog, Mickey, around his San Francisco neighborhood.

Allen, 63, adopted the Jack Russell terrier in July from Muttville, a dog rescue agency for senior canines. Mickey is more than 17 years old.

“I am indulging him because he is at the end of his life,” explained Allen, who is gay and lives alone, about the duo’s daily walking regimen.

Prescription for Disability, Isolation

Having never owned a dog before, Allen was acting on the advice of his doctor, who felt a companion animal would reduce his stress levels. It also lessens his social isolation, as people on the street will stop to talk to him about Mickey on their outings.

The exercise he gains from walking Mickey also benefits Allen, who is certified as disabled due to knee problems.

“It is helping with my health,” said Allen. “Mickey walks slow, which is good for me, and I have lost weight.”

Researchers in aging have begun noticing how pet ownership can be a boon for older adults, especially LGBT seniors who are more likely to live alone and lack family connections. Their findings are bolstering calls by senior advocates for policies that foster pet ownership among older adults, particularly those who live in assisted living facilities, retirement homes or rental apartments that ban pets.

“The love and affection pets bring to people are very important,” said Anna Muraco, Ph.D., of the Department of Sociology at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.

Muraco presented her study “Life Saving in Every Way,” about the role of pets for 50-plus LGBT adults, in November, at the Gerontological Society of America annual conference. She co-authored it with Jennifer Putney, PhD, of Simmons College in Boston.

The two researchers culled through findings of the National Health, Aging and Sexuality Study: Caring and Aging with Pride Over Time. Stared in 2009, it is the first national LGBT senior study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Muraco and Putney also interviewed a subsample of 59 respondents from the Los Angeles area.

Of the 1,039 LGBT senior pet owners in the national study, about half were female, and nearly half had a disability.

“Pets help with mental and physical health, provide connection to other people, and give their owners a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” said Muraco. “Pets help ward off depression, and dogs are a good way for people to get out and exercise.”

The NIH study’s lead researcher, Karen I. Fredriksen-Goldsen, Ph.D., also a coauthor of the pet-ownership study, noted that one of the LGBT senior community groups that collaborated on the Caring and Aging with Pride study requested that it include a question about pet ownership, which it initially did not.

“They said we go into homes of seniors day after day and pets are sometimes their only social support,” said Fredriksen-Goldsen, a lesbian and director of the Hartford Center of Excellence at the University of Washington School of Social Work.

Dog Walking for Fitness

Jane A. McElroy, PhD, of the University of Missouri Family and Community Medicine Department, was also asked to add a question about pet ownership in a study she is overseeing on the physical fitness of lesbians and bisexual women.

Of the 105 participants in the study, one-third answered yes when asked “Do you have a dog in the household that is regularly walked?”

McElroy said, “Walking their dogs naturally supports physical activity, and everyone knows getting off the couch and moving is important for staying healthy.”

Muraco and Putney noted the lack of long-term studies of how pets contribute to their owner’s mental and physical health. They want to do their own longitudinal study on the issue.

One concern of LGBT seniors they interviewed was the financial consequences of owning a pet, as many live on limited incomes. Even seniors in their study who lived in West Hollywood, which has a city policy allowing residents 62 and older to have two pets–even in an apartment banning them– expressed worry that their landlord would raise their rents if they adopted an animal.

Not all senior housing facilities are accessible to pets, Muraco and Putney observed That can be a challenge when older adults can no longer live on their own but refuse to move without their pets.

The researchers suggested that local agencies promote various services to assist seniors wanting to have pets, such as providing low-cost pet food and veterinary care.

Muraco and Putney recommended that people only get pets, if they can care for the animal. Also, Muraco cautioned, “Pets do die. So if the person is already faced with a lot of bereavement, they may not want one.”

Bill Ambrunn, 52, a gay attorney who chaired San Francisco’s LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, emphasized that the benefits of pet ownership should be obvious to policymakers and those who care for elders.

“I know so many older people in the LGBT community who you wonder how they would function without their pets,” said Ambrunn. “My last dog, she went everywhere I went.”

Following the death in 2014 of Fannie, who he had for 14 years, Ambrunn obtained a German Shepherd mix: “The same day Fannie died I adopted Hudson. I didn’t want to come home to an empty apartment,” he said. “The thought was too depressing to me.”

Ambrunn said it would make sense to provide seniors help to care for their pets. He pointed to the agency, Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS), which recently merged with the Shanti Project and cares for the pets of people facing life-threatening illnesses.

“PAWS does a great job, but I am concerned as the so-called silver tsunami breaks if there is going to be enough resources for seniors to care for their pets when they need help,” said Ambrunn, referring to the country’s rapidly growing senior population.

“I have a 90-pound dog and a lot of my friends couldn’t walk him. Just because you have friends who care for you, they might not be able to care for your pet.”

He added, more research into the benefits of pet ownership could bolster calls for senior living facilities to adopt pet-friendly rules, noted Ambrunn. “I can understand there would be some issues around dogs, but if you can’t even have cats,” he said, research supporting claims that pets are beneficial could get additional facilities to allow pets.

Muttville to the Rescue

Pets will be allowed at the new 110-unit low-income senior housing project being built by Openhouse, the LGBT senior services agency based in San Francisco, set to open this fall.

Recognizing the benefits pets can bring to seniors, in 2012 Openhouse began organizing monthly “cuddle club” visits for its clients to interact with dogs rescued by Muttville. Among the four people who stopped by in December was Rebecca Lockhart, 50, who is bisexual and lives in a senior living facility in San Francisco.

“It’s just a real loving environment. I really like the dogs and I like the contact,” said Lockhart, who resides with her husband and is considering adopting kittens.

The couple’s dog, Charlie Parker, died at age 18 in 2014. Because they both have disabilities, it was impractical for them to adopt another dog, explained Lockhart. Lockhart, who was a registered nurse for 25 years, now helps care for the pets of the other residents where she lives.

William Langley, 72, a gay man who lives in San Francisco, had cats and dogs for 40 some years but now prefers not to own a pet. By participating in the Openhouse outings to Muttville, he said, “I can still get my dog noogies in,” while giving the rescued canines needed attention.

“I have seen a lot of older gentlemen recently retired walking their dogs they finally got after their long careers. It is fun to watch because the dogs are often walking them,” he said.

Since 2007 Muttville has offered a special seniors adoption program where it waves its fees for older adults. It has since placed more than 1,000 senior canines with seniors aged 62 and older.
Regarding the health benefits seniors can derive from their pets, Muttville Executive Director Sherri Franklin stated, “There are not a lot of statistics, but we all know it.”

Matthew S. Bajko wrote this article, adapted from a longer version in Bay Area Reporter, with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by The SCAN Foundation.