Florence Halpurn found herself alone in her country style ranch home in Wyomissing. It is a familiar situation for seniors aging in place. Her kids visit a few times a month and her visiting nurse visits weekly, yet most of the time Florence is alone except for her small Bichon Maltese puppy Lily.
“I got Lily after the passing of my husband. My kids convinced me that I would enjoy having her around. I must say, I really do.” Florence discovered what many studies are confirming: Pets have numerous benefits for aging seniors. The most obvious benefit is an increase in a positive mindset and mood. The pets offer companionship which often blossoms into a friendship. Studies show that a positive relationship like this can decrease stress, anxiety, depression and other difficult issues that seniors may face. A study from Psychological Reports stated that “men and women over 65 years of age provided self-ratings and pet owners described themselves with more favorable adjectives, such as nurturance, independence and optimism.” The effects aren’t just psychological either. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “when compared to non-owners, pet owners made fewer medical visits over the course of a year.” Similar studies have shown that pets offer lower blood pressure, a reduced chance of heart attack or stroke and an improvement in memory for pet owners.
While Florence had the support of family and friends during the mourning process, she found that Lily comforted her the most. “I had a rough time getting out of bed, but Lily really motivated me.” The routines required to care for a pet quickly became the focus point of Florence’s day. Feeding and taking Lily out to go to the bathroom forced Florence to get up and get dressed. With exercise being an extremely important aspect of staying healthy, getting up and moving around is one of the best things that a senior can do. Studies show that a major contribution by animals in pet-owners lives is the motivation to keep going.
“I also found that I was becoming more of a dog person.” Florence grew up in the farmland of Lebanon county where her family kept a small amount of animals: chickens, goats, yet a bad experience with a dog when Florence was young kept the family from getting a dog. “I was afraid of dogs for a very long time. It was only until much later in my life when my daughter got one for her family that I could even stand to be around one.” Florence says this as Lily lies in her lap and a pet care magazine sits on the coffee table in front of her.
One of Florence’s favorite activities is sitting on her front porch with Lily. The warm summer air is accompanied by the sound of children playing at a nearby playground. Occasionally, parents and children pass by Florence’s porch to pet Lily. This is yet another of the benefits of pet-owner ship. A study by Lynette Hart, a professor who studies the effects of animals on humans, found that pets often are the initiator in conversations between people. A mutual bond is formed over the animal which then acts as an ice-breaker. It also showed that owning a pet can enhance social relationships, making the task of gaining friends much easier.
“I would definitely say that owning a pet has really made my life better.” Florence joins a growing number of seniors who have become pet owners to enhance their lives. There are also a number of opportunities for seniors to adopt animals for little cost. The Animal Rescue League of Berks County offers cats who are 5 years and older and dogs that are 8 years and older to anyone 65+ for free. For current pet owners, the Humane Society of Berks County offers a number of programs including Ani-Meals, which provides pet owners in need of assistance with pet food.
For those that may not be able to adopt a pet, the Animal Rescue League also looks for volunteers to walk dogs, cuddle cats, answer phones or talk to the public at events.
For more information on adopting a pet or volunteering, contact the Humane Society of Berks County at www.berkshumane.org or call 610-921-2348. You can also contact the Animal Rescue League of Berks County at www.berksARL.org or call 610-373-8830.