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Seniors in hospice care may benefit from pet companions

When seniors move to hospice care, a major concern is making sure they retain engagement with the world around them. According to the National Institutes of Health, a survey of more than 2,500 people in hospice settings revealed that at least 10 percent reported symptoms of major depression. 

While reasons for the prevalence of the disorder varied, many seniors in long-term care experience depression as a result of prevailing sadness and loneliness, and the NIH indicates that the condition is frequently under-treated in hospice settings. One of the most successful methods for preventing or minimizing depression, particularly among older adults in hospice care, has been partnering patients with support animals. Whether full-time companions or occasional visitors, pets have been proven to add value to the lives of people in hospice care and seniors in general.

The benefits of pets
According to Pet Partners, pairing humans with animal companions is "just plain healthy," and this applies to both physical and mental wellbeing. The source highlighted how having a pet can help seniors feel in control and like their own role as a provider is important.

"One of the benefits that we get from [pets] is that we have a responsibility to these animals," said Florence Kelly, a senior and owner of Nicky, an 8-year-old dog, as quoted by the source. "When you get older, you try to stay very active, but older people have a tendency to just sit. Because you have the responsibility for the animal, you don't have that tendency."

While not all seniors, and particularly those experiencing severe physical handicap, may be able to get out and about with their animal, pets can still provide some structure to the day, as well as a sense of ownership and responsibility. Interactions like petting and brushing a cat or dog can help build a relationship, and are rewarding in the pets' positive response. Such exchanges can also help mitigate negative emotions or frustrations that people in palliative care may experience.

Donna Williamson, a nurse who participates in a program that pairs animals with older adults with illnesses, commented to the source on her personal experience witnessing the impact the pets have on people's wellbeing.

"I really feel that it's a kind of spiritual thing, that closeness, that bonding that you get," Williamson said. "What's impressive about [the cat] is that he seems to know when people are sick. He tends to be very close to them. He just soothes. You can feel yourself kind of relaxing."

According to Pals2Pets, animals can also help with feelings of depression, which experts estimate is experienced by more than 6 million seniors. When older adults feel lonely or down, pets such as cats and dogs can provide companionship and a responsive interaction.

Physical and mental well-being
In addition to the mental benefits, seniors with pets may stand to improve their physical well-being, too. According to the NIH, a variety of studies have measured the positive impact that owning a pet or simply interacting with animals on a regular basis can have on human physiology. For instance, in one study, scientists followed more than 400 adults with a history of heart attack and discovered a correlation between dog ownership and longevity. In separate research, analysts examined stress levels among couples with and without pets. The couples who owned animals were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, while resting as well as during stressful conditions. Mobility was also greater among seniors with pets as compared to those without animal companions.

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