Social bonds are essential to health. And yet, our social networks tend to shrink as we get older, which can lead to loneliness. Loneliness can be transient and associated with significant life events, but it can also be aggravated when our physical and cognitive abilities prevent us from socializing. Loneliness can have serious health consequences, partly because it promotes a sedentary lifestyle. It is an equally important risk factor for premature death as smoking, obesity or lack of physical activity.(1)
But coping with loneliness is not easy. Are companion animals part of the solution?
What the research tells us
Many studies have examined the effects of companion animals and animal-assisted therapies on the health of older adults. These studies looked at the effects of dogs, cats, birds, fishes and even interactive robot-seals! These studies generally reveal that companion animals and animal-assisted therapies can improve the physical, emotional and social well-being of older adults. Some studies show that pets help relieve stress and anxiety, reduce blood pressure, emotionally stimulate older adults, promote memories of past experiences, encourage older adults to move and stay active, and improve difficult behaviours of people living with Alzheimer and dementia.(2)
Some studies have also examined the effectiveness of companion animals to alleviate loneliness among older adults. A systematic review revealed that there are still few methodologically sound studies that have examined this issue, but there is evidence that animal-assisted therapies are promising for reducing loneliness (although this positive effect may be due to some aspects of the therapies rather than to the animals). (3) Other studies also highlighted that animals can help older adults feel useful (and have a sense of purpose), encourage them to talk, encourage loving physical contact, and act as a social catalyst to help connect and talk to others. It has also been demonstrated that the presence of animals can make a positive difference in bereavement and ease the transition to a new home (events that usually exacerbate loneliness among older adults).(4)
Animals have the potential to be faithful companions in our old age. But the decision to adopt or offer a companion animal should not be taken lightly. It is important to consider the needs and capacities of older adults to care for these animals, but also the risks associated with the presence of animals (whether it is the risk of falls if the older adults are frail and have balance problems, as well as the risk of bites or infections). The loss of a companion animal (whether following the death of the animal or the placement of the older adult in a residence that does not accept animals) can generate distress among older adults. The possibility of having a companion animal should therefore be considered in the assessment before entering a residence or care facility. The animal may represent a relationship with a deceased spouse, a valuable source of companionship and emotional support, as well as a life choice for the older adult.(4) We must therefore proceed with love and respect with these companion animals.