One of the hardest parts of growing old is loneliness. When they're without a spouse or children around to keep them company, many seniors begin to feel isolated. This is where pets come in.
Studies have shown time and again that companion animals have the ability to lift the spirits of people who live alone and provide unconditional friendship and enrichment.
Yet caring for a pet long term is not to be entered into lightly. It's essential to choose the right animal, one that will be both compatible and affordable for an older owner.
If you think an elderly friend or family member would be happier with a pet around, here are the basics to get you started.
Please always discuss getting a pet in detail, and ensure your loved one or their caretaker is 100% on-board with the idea. Never buy an animal as a surprise — that rarely ends well.
1. Choosing the right animal
Finding the right pet to fit a person’s lifestyle and energy level is crucial.
Dogs can make wonderful pets, but they require daily walking, leadership, and more care than other companion animals.
This makes a dog well-suited for an active senior who enjoys walking outdoors, who can bend and pick up after their pet. An adult dog already housetrained would be easier to match to an older person’s lifestyle than a rambunctious puppy.
Cats are easier to care for and make excellent pets for seniors.
On a daily basis, a cat requires a good diet, a litter box, a few toys and human companionship. And a senior who lives alone will have plenty of time to devote to a pet kitty.
Birds can be fantastic pets for the elderly. Some species require very little hands-on care aside from feeding, watering and switching out the paper in their cages.
Canaries and finches are lovely little birds that prefer not to be handled, so they’re great for adding lively sound and movement to the environment. Parrots tend to be louder and more demanding, but many enjoy physical contact with owners.
2. Considering the costs
Since many seniors live on limited incomes, it’s essential to consider an owner's ability to pay for a pet's basic needs.
Starting expenses include the adoption or purchase costs, spaying or neutering, vaccinations and a cage or crate. Regular expenses will include food, toys, vet visits, preventive medications and grooming.
The American Pet Products Association says routine vet visits cost dog owners $257 in 2017, while cat owners paid an average of $182. Basic food for either type of animal cost $235 last year.
Larger animals are more expensive to feed. Though birds may be less expensive to care for day to day, if they get ill, the specialized medical costs are comparable to what you’d pay to care for a cat or dog.
3. Arranging for care
An older person may get a demanding pet, like a dog, and be fine for a few years but later lose the ability to care for their pet. For seniors who need help with pet care, a daily dog walker or twice-weekly cage cleaning is another cost to consider.
If a helper is already coming to the home a few times a week, then you could ask if they would be OK with adding a quick bird cage paper swap or litter box cleaning into their schedule.
Or, a willing family member could perform these sorts of helpful tasks to keep an older loved one enjoying the benefits of pet ownership.
4. Looking at alternatives to pets
But let's be completely realistic: Pet ownership isn’t for everybody.
The good news is that if a senior can’t afford to keep an animal at home, there are other ways to interact with furry or feathered friends and reap all of the benefits of socializing with pets.
Often, shelters and animal rescues need volunteers to care for animals on-site, or to foster them at home temporarily before they find new owners.
Pet therapy programs in your town may offer opportunities to spend time with animals without having to own one. These programs might even come to your home or senior center for free!
A quick online search should uncover the best options near you.