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Unexpected Advantages of Pet Companionship for Seniors Living with Dementia
Elizabeth Bemis

By: Elizabeth Bemis on April 13th, 2022

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Unexpected Advantages of Pet Companionship for Seniors Living with Dementia

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Pets are those loyal companions who bring joy and meaning to the lives of those around them. From traditional pets, like dogs and cats, to other varieties including birds, rabbits, and more, there’s simply nothing quite like the feeling of bonding with an animal. It is for these obvious reasons that many seniors enjoy living with or spending time with pets. But did you know there are some unexpected benefits to pet interaction, particularly for seniors facing memory struggles such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?


In fact, many of the best memory care communities welcome pets to live in residence or participate in scheduled pet visits. They offer this option specifically for the mental, emotional, and physical benefits that pet companionship can bring to residents battling memory-related challenges. If you’re curious about why this is the case and wondering how pet ownership or pet therapy can enhance life for a senior with dementia, here are some paws-itively interesting insights!


How Pet Companionship Impacts Physical Well-Being


The activity of caring for or regularly spending time with a pet has immense “feel-good” benefits for seniors, not the least of which involves physical health. These types of interactions can be a real health-promoting exercise, which is integral for older adults battling Alzheimer’s or dementia symptoms in their everyday life.


For starters, owning or interacting with a pet often encourages greater physical activity than a senior struggling with memory challenges might otherwise engage in. From walking an animal to playing with or regularly feeding them, there’s a built-in call for movement and exercise.


Certain types of pet therapy have even been shown to help improve balance and prevent risks of fall. Active interactions with a dog, for example, would require a person to bend down and pick up a ball or lean forward to pet them, and all of these movements contribute to posture control. 


Regular contact with a pet also promotes the release of natural endorphins. Just 15 minutes of bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of cortisol and increasing levels of serotonin. This positive cycle of hormone activity can actually have a significant impact on pain relief and may even reduce one’s dependency on pharmaceutical drugs for certain types of pain management. 


Speaking of chemical reactions, some research shows that pet interaction can have a positive effect on the dilation of one’s blood vessels, improving heart rate, blood pressure, and overall cardiovascular system function. 


It has also been shown that companion animals may stimulate oxytocin production, which increases bonding and the feeling of being needed—indicators that are known to influence food consumption, eating patterns, body weight, and body habits, as well as food choices, meal satisfaction, and appetite. All of these are of particular concern for seniors who struggle with the everyday effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms. 


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How Pet Companionship Impacts Mental Well-Being


Facets of mental cognition, like memory and communication, are typically some of the most difficult abilities to maintain when facing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It is important for seniors dealing with these challenges to have outlets for exercising brain health as much as possible. In some ways, pet companionship can serve as a valuable addition to these strategies.  


Some studies on pet therapy have indicated its potential to improve short-term memory and other cognitive functions due to the exercise of certain brain activities. For instance, pet interaction requires a person to pay attention, orientate within their environment or simply evoke memories from the past


In addition, animal interactions may serve as a conduit for increased communication, by way of their tendency to initiate conversations and invite socialization. This is an especially beneficial outcome for seniors living with Alzheimer's or dementia, as some begin to withdraw and shy away from social interactions for fear of feeling confused or agitated. Pet companionship can help reignite the natural occurrence of communication and social engagement. 


How Pet Companionship Impacts Emotional Well-Being


As seniors battling memory decline, this reality can take quite a toll on one’s emotional well-being. These challenges are frustrating, and they often lead to the onset of aggression, anxiety, and depression. That is why one of the most profound impacts of pet companionship is the opportunity for someone to give and receive affection. Animal interactions can increase feelings of satisfaction and purpose, as well as decrease the risk of loneliness and isolation. 


Pet therapy has been shown to calm moods and increase one’s positive outlook. Given the chemical reactions described earlier (prompting higher serotonin and lower cortisol), animal interaction can help diffuse stress and prevent aggressive behaviors. Because it is strongly associated with higher levels of contentment and appreciation for life, there’s a better chance of lessening one’s experience of anxiety and depression, conditions that affect many of those in the Alzheimer’s and dementia population. In these ways, pet companionship may notably serve as a therapeutic influence on emotional well-being and behavior. 


And let’s not overlook the importance of laughter and smiling. Even a short visit with an animal companion can do wonders for sparking pleasure and happiness. A hearty laugh can have the immediate result of making someone feel more relaxed and lifting their spirits. This simple experience has the potential to reap major emotional rewards and support the overall well-being of seniors living with the realities of dementia. 


Ultimately, the physical, mental, and emotional advantages that can be gleaned from tapping into the power of pet companionship are wholly worthwhile for seniors that face the difficult plight of memory decline. Because quality memory care communities recognize these benefits, many integrate related programs into their care approach. It’s just one more way to support memory care residents in living the most fulfilling, joyful, and healthy lives possible. 


To learn about UMH communities, including the memory support services provided for residents and their families, visit our memory care pagecontact us today or schedule a complimentary visit now. For additional tips on senior health and lifestyle issues, check out our blog


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About Elizabeth Bemis

In 1998, I drove past an assisted living community construction site, learned that it was part of United Methodist Homes and realized the next stop on my professional journey was to work for a mission driven organization. Soon after, I joined the team as Executive Director of our Middlewoods of Farmington community and later served as Regional Manager for the Middlewoods properties before accepting my current role as Vice President of Marketing, Promotions, and Assisted Living Operations. I enjoy spending time with my family, cooking, reading, walking, and love working alongside our staff, residents, and families to build strong communities that reflect the mission, vision, and values of United Methodist Homes.

Our Blog is a 2016 Platinum Generations Award Winner! The Generations Award is an annual international competition for excellence in senior marketing recognizing professionals who have communicated to the 50+ Mature Markets.