Last week, I met a woman and her dog walking along a nature trail. As dog lovers do, we started to talk. She said she and her dog walk the two-mile nature trail daily. Recently, she had tried to adopt a second senior dog, to keep her 8-year-old dog company. The rescue organization said that since she was 76, it was likely that something would happen to her during the dog’s lifetime, and the dog would need to be re-homed. Rather than take this risk, they rejected her application. This is what I call the tail wagging the dog.
The numerous benefits that accrue to elder pet owners are well documented. Pets reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and increase interaction and physical activity. They provide companionship, reduce depression and decrease loneliness. Senior pet owners visit the doctor less often than seniors who don’t have pets. They tend to have fewer minor health problems, lower medical costs, better psychological well-being, and even higher survival rates following surgery for coronary heart disease!!
Pets don’t just bring us joy; they depend on us. For older adults who increasingly depend on others for help — with transportation, medication management, meal preparation and more — having someone who depends on them helps preserve self esteem. As my mother-in-law said of her parakeet, Pookie “I depend on you and Bill for many things, but Pookie depends on me. It feels good to be needed.”
Pets benefit, too, particularly when older folks adopt older pets. “These lucky pets go from the pound to paradise. Since most of the adopters are retired, they have lots of time to devote to a previously unwanted pet,” says Chicago veterinarian Tony Kremer. All these benefits — for both seniors and pets — are understood by some organizations. Purina’s Pets for Seniors program, for example, works with 150 shelters nationwide to reduce the cost of pet adoption for senior citizens. (Go to www.purina.com/petsfor55+ for a list of participating shelters). Another organization, SeniorsforPets.org, helps fund basic medical care for needy Senior pet owners.
All this benefit does come with risk. People of all ages trip on their pets, but older adults are more likely to be seriously injured from a fall. In fact, for older adults, falls can be deadly.
But why does risk only mean “bad”? Risk is usually associated with the downside of risk – when things turn out worse than expected. Geriatrician Bill Thomas urges people and organizations to look at the upside of risk — when things turn out better than anticipated — as well. Yes, pets can be a trip hazard for older adults. They also increase exercise and help their elderly pet owners stay in shape, decreasing the likelihood of falls. For most elderly pet owners, pets represent the upside of risk. When we remove the downside of risk, says Thomas, we remove the upside of risk as well. When did 70, 80 and 90-year-olds lose the right to accept risk?
The 76-year-old I met on the trail was rejected sight unseen, on the basis of her age alone — as if every 76-year-old is the same. Of course, people are not all the same, at 76 or at any age. People far younger than 76 can be less able-bodied, and people much older than 76 can be physically fit. Rescue organizations try to control what will happen to the animals they adopt out. In some organizations, it seems that a fenced yard and the age of the adoptive parent are given higher priority than how the loved the pet will be or how it will enhance the life of the person who adopts it.
If there is an essence to a dog’s soul, I think at its core is being needed, having a purpose, making a difference in its owner’s life. That is what dogs do for elder owners — they make a difference. Perhaps dogs adopted by elder owners do have a higher than normal risk of needing to be re-homed at an advanced age, but that is a risk I think most dogs would gladly accept in exchange for a life filled with love and purpose.
I think animals have a right to the upside of risk, just as human do. Let’s have the dog wag the tail, and not vice versa.
Originally published by MovingSolutions.com