Pets can be better than pills for some elderly people

pets imagePal is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who is a good example of a dog who is a key member of his household.

Pal is six years old, and he is the sole companion of Miss O’Connell, a lady living alone in the suburbs of a big city. Pal spends every moment of his life in the company of his owner. They are never apart. Miss O’Connell has reached the stage in life where she is no longer able-bodied enough to go out and about. As a result, she spends all of her time at home, with Pal.

Pal is a good watchdog, alerting Miss O’Connell to any strange noises or other unusual happenings. But his real strength is his role as a close friend and companion of Miss O’Connell. If you can imagine spending every moment of your life alone with an individual animal, it is easy to imagine how well Miss O’Connell understands Pal, and vice versa. Owner and dog follow every move that the other makes.

Miss O’Connell and Pal are a good example of the mutually beneficial social partnership that can develop between pets and owners. Both animal and human obtain great rewards from each other. Dogs like Pal thrive on the close relationship with a single person. And there has been plenty of research in recent years that has proven that pets like Pal are a strong contributing factor to continuing good health in older people.

One recent project analysed how pet keeping affected elderly people who lived alone. The study measured how many hours of ‘paid care worker time’ were needed for each person. At the start of the study, an average of 40 hours a week of human help was needed per patient. Six months after a patient had been given a pet, the amount of carer time had reduced to about ten hours per week. Different control studies were carried out to ensure that the result was genuine, and remarkably, this finding was consistently repeatable. The study proved that not only did patients enjoy keeping their pets, but the animals were cost-effective, reducing the need for expensive paid help.

Another researcher followed the progress of human patients who had undergone major heart surgery. It was found that those patients who shared their lives with animals lived for significantly longer than those who did not keep pets. This effect applied when people kept cats, as well as dogs, so it was not simply due to the increased exercise that dog owners might enjoy. The reason for the effect is not known, but the study proved that ownership of pets definitely made these people live for longer.

Why should pets be so good for us, and in particular, for older people? Nobody knows the exact reasons. Perhaps it is simply that we humans are social beings, who enjoy companions. And a companion does not need to be human. As Pal demonstrates, a pet can be as communicative and attentive as a human friend.

The evidence of health benefits from pets is so strong that in some parts of the world, doctors even talk of providing pets “on prescription” for people in certain situations. There is even a feeling that it would be cost effective for the state to sponsor pets for older people, as a supplement to the old age pension. After all, it is quite likely that a pet might provide more health benefits than some of the prescription drugs that are doled out free of charge.

I’m sure that Miss O’Connell and Pal would agree: they’re better for each other than any medication could ever be.

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