We bought a puppy when the girls were small, and she was the perfect dog for us. I didn’t think I’d get another dog after she died. I wanted to be able to come and go worry-free. But as the first daughter’s college departure came closer, I anticipated the impact of her absence and knew I’d miss feeling needed. I started to look at Petfinder.com on a regular basis. The new puppy, Maisy, instantly became the love of my life. If you’re a pet person, you get it.
For older adults, pet ownership is proven to lower blood pressure and to lessen depression and feelings of loneliness. Residential care facilities are incorporating pets or farm animals as therapeutic assistants. Many people know of Oscar, the nursing home cat, from the bestselling book Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat (2010). Even caring for chickens can help older adults get a new lease on life.
Studies show that owning a dog, in particular, is linked to a longer life and may lower the risk of heart disease. Getting out for walks, even at a moderate pace, benefits heart health. Maisy isn’t likely to encourage me to exercise. In fact, she hides when I show her the leash. But every day, after she has relieved herself and plops down on the step, I see neighbors walking dogs; I wave and say hello. I’ve met people with dogs I’d have missed otherwise. I do take Maisy to the dog park and outdoor events where having a dog is a guaranteed conversation starter. And making new friends is a given if she’s out in her stroller. Don’t judge! One hot day, when we were not too far from home, she sat down and refused to budge. Too awkward, heavy and hot to carry, she made me wait her out. I ordered a stroller that afternoon. She loves to sit in it and I get my walk.
In addition to Maisy, I have four cats, each with her own personality. Because they make me happy, I endure the nasty litter boxes and the never-ending call to scoop. With that comes the need to buy litter—lots of litter. They use enough litter and eat enough kibble that I now buy cat and dog supplies online and have it delivered. While not always cost-effective, I buy bags and boxes that weigh under 25 pounds. They’re just easier to lift. I know folks who buy pet health insurance, but it’s expensive, so I keep a little money aside for an emergency.
Pets can be a nuisance—even dangerous when underfoot. I make Maisy precede me on stairs because she could knock me over. On more than one occasion, I’ve tripped over a cat. When I see my neighbors walking their dogs in inclement weather, especially at night, I worry that they might slip and fall. It would be so much safer to have a fenced-in yard.
But having a purring feline on my lap is more calming to me than ocean waves, and studies show that petting can release the hormone oxytocin, which relieves stress. As I write this, I have two cats sleeping on either side of me. In an attempt to keep kitties off the keyboard, I emptied two desk drawers and cushioned them. Like babies, they’re so sweet when they’re asleep. And if I can’t find them? They’re probably up to no good. I’ll hear a crash soon. You need a good sense of humor to have a houseful of critters.
Their antics make me laugh and I’m never lonely. They’re totally worth it.
Pepper Evans works as an independent-living consultant, helping older adults age in place. She is the empty-nest mother of two adult daughters and has extensive personal and professional experience as a caregiver. She has worked as a researcher and editor for authors and filmmakers. She also puts her time and resources to use in the nonprofit sector and serves on the Board of Education in Lawrence Township, NJ.