| Tue, Nov 19, 2013 @ 09:00 AM

Caregiving Is Going to the Dogs (and Cats)

Posted by Medicare Made Clear

pet benefitsBy Dr. Jamie Huysman, Vice President, UnitedHealthcare

A total of 40 – 70% of family caregivers experience clinical symptoms of depression, according to 2012 research by the Family Caregiver Alliance.1 These symptoms may be caused by feelings of isolation and loneliness associated with the caregiving experience. For example, it may become difficult to see friends and attend social activities due to caregiving responsibilities. Caregivers may feel a sense of loss when lifestyle and habits are changed and they have less time to give to personal needs or rejuvenation.

Enter Man’s Best Friend

What better way to regain a sense of connection than with a “care receiver” who looks at you with grateful puppy dog eyes? Or one who purrs and circles around you with unconditional love, uttering only “meow”?

Research has shown that pets can lift spirits and be great companions for older people.2 These findings may extend to caregivers and care recipients alike. Let’s take a look at some “pet benefits.”

  • The responsibility of looking after and caring for a pet “loved one” may help a person feel a sense of self-esteem and prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation.

  • Pets may help fight apathy and indifference. Older individuals especially may become more interested in what’s going on around them in their homes and communities.

  • Pets may help people get over loss and other sad events by becoming a new object of affection.

  • Pets may help prevent or reduce absent-mindedness or bewilderment. Their presence and needs can communicate a sense of time and help maintain a daily rhythm.

  • Pets may encourage their owners to be physically active by being playful, requiring routine care and feeding, or needing to be walked.

  • Pets may bring a sense of safety to their owners, particularly to people who live alone.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that pets may help:

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Lower cholesterol levels

  • Lower triglyceride levels

  • Lessen feelings of loneliness

And last but not least, pets can be amusing. They can make us laugh and may help improve our mood. This is important because humor can be a faithful ally in fighting off feelings of loneliness and depression.

Pairing Pets and People

Anyone who has a beloved pet knows how much animals have to offer. In return, pets need proper care and companionship themselves. When a pet’s needs are understood and met, both pet and owner can enjoy a warm and fulfilling relationship.

Before you bring a new furry friend into the house, it’s important to make sure you are prepared to commit to pet ownership. Animals come with requirements of their own. Meeting those requirements can be a big responsibility, especially for older adults. It’s important to make a considered choice about whether to bring an animal into your life.

If you decide to get a pet, the next step is to determine what type of pet best suits the home and the people in it. You want to have the right pet for your situation. A large dog may offer protection, but it can be hard to handle one. Similarly, a puppy may be fun and playful, but it will also require training and a lot of attention. Some people may be more comfortable with a pet that’s easier to care for, such as an older dog or a cat. In addition, certain dog and cat breeds tend to have specific characteristics. A little research may help ensure a good match for both pet and owner. 

I must admit that though I have owned dogs, cats, birds and rabbits, I have landed on a being a “cat person.” Cats fit with my busy lifestyle. They keep themselves clean and can be left alone for periods of time. But most of all, there is nothing like coming home to my two great furry felines, Rockie and Rollie.

Maybe your house is ready to go to the dogs (or cats)!

For more information, contact the Medicare helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY 1-877-486-2048. If you have questions about Medicare Made Clear, call 1-877-619-5582, TTY 711, 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. local time, seven days a week.


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1. Assessment of Family Caregivers: A Research Perspective in Family Caregiver Alliance (Eds.), Caregiver Assessment: Voices and Views from the Field. Report from a National Consensus Development Conference (Vol. II) (pp. 12-37). San Francisco: Family Caregiver Alliance. Zarit, S. (2006) Updated: November 2012

2. The Importance of Companion Animal Relationships in the Lives of Older People. McColgan, G., Schofield, I. Nursing Older People, 19(1) 2007 Feb: 21-3.

Y0066_131029_095245 Accepted