For many seniors, the presence of a pet can make a huge difference in their life.
Research shows that animals can help reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure, ward off depression, increase seniors' social interaction and heighten their physical activity.
A University of Rochester study published in September 2013 followed 830 primary-care patients age 60 and older. The study found that those who owned pets were 40 percent less likely to report feeling lonely. That's significant, because older adults who report feelings of loneliness are at an increased risk of physical and mental health problems, even early death.
And according to researchers at Michigan State University, six out of 10 people who take their pets for regular walks meet federal guidelines for regular exercise. One question is whether dogs turn owners into active people or whether active people own dogs. A study in Australia suggests the former.
At heart, interaction with pets can be a win-win situation for seniors and for the animals they love. Pets ask only for love and attention. In return, they offer loyalty, devotion and companionship.
TLC AT WHS
Just ask Karen Lindvall-Larson. The 63-year-old Bellingham resident has been volunteering at Whatcom Humane Society the past year "providing cat TLC," she says.
She's one of a group of seniors who visit the society regularly to care for animals.
"We brush them, socialize with them, play with them and cuddle them, depending on what an individual cats needs at the time," she says.
When Lindvall-Larson first met the staff members at the Humane Society, including Laura Clark, executive director, she was so impressed with their commitment and dedication that she knew she wanted to participate.
"I felt like I could be part of something fantastic," she says.
One of the highlights of her volunteer work is watching the cats change from terrified creatures when they first enter the facility, to seeing their personalities emerge as they settle in, become comfortable and start receiving love and attention.
"It's a wonderful thing to be part of," she says. "And it's so exciting to talk to people who are coming in and looking for a cat, and to help match the right cat to the right person."
Lindvall-Larson goes to the society twice a week, spending up to four hours each time, and gladly adds an extra afternoon each week if available.
She checks the society's website regularly to learn which cats have been adopted and which kittens have come in. Because older cats are less adoptable than kittens, she tries to spend time with them, first.
"Every week I have a new favorite cat," the retired librarian says. "It's the most wonderful thing to volunteer there. For one thing, the cats give so much back, but the staff is also such an inspiration. And I love talking to people that come in, and listening to their cat stories."
PETS WITHOUT OWNERS
The environment for animals at the Humane Society is fantastic, says Edwina Kleeman of Belling ham, who fosters society animals, walks the dogs and socializes the cats.
"The great thing about going through the volunteer training at the Humane Society is that you get to interact with dogs, cats, bunnies and birds without actually owning them," she says.
That can be significant, especially for seniors whose health or accommodations prevent them from caring for a pet of their own.
Such seniors can benefit from Pet Partners, a Bellevue-based nonprofit that helps people live healthier and happier lives by interacting with companion, therapy and service animals. The organization boasts more than 11,000 handler-animal teams that volunteer their time interacting with, among others, seniors who are no longer mobile and independent.
In Bellingham, Kathleen Laughlin represents one of those teams. A registered pet therapy team with Pet Partners, Laughlin takes her two dogs, George and Sophie, to Orchard Park Assisted Living in Bellingham each month, where they give residents a chance to visit with the animals.
Laughlin and her pets have been evaluated by Pet Partners to ensure the dogs are well-behaved, follow commands and react appropriately in the different settings they encounter during visits.
Six-year-old Sophie, in particular, is perfectly suited for visits to nursing homes, Laughlin says.
"She'll come in and sit next to someone, waiting to be petted," she says. "But George, who's eight, has never met a two-legged anything that he didn't love, and he's been a pet partner for the past seven years, first in Texas, and since 2011 in Bellingham."
The visits certainly seem to be therapeutic for seniors who want to interact with the animals. Laughlin recalled a recent visit with a senior who couldn't talk but was moving her hand rapidly back and forth along a table.
"I sensed she wanted to visit with the animals, so I sat down next to her, started talking to her and eventually put George next to us so she could put her hand on him," Laughlin says. "I could tell she was able to have some love from the dog."
While the visits are time- and energy-consuming, Laughlin says the feeling of reward she gets from volunteering with Pet Partners far outweighs anything else.
"When you visit a nursing home with pets, it gives seniors a chance to reminisce about animals they've had in the past," she says. "And for some seniors in these facilities, these are the only visitors they get."
Mt. Baker Care Center in Bellingham receives visits from two dogs each month through another team affiliated with Pet Partners.
"The seniors love it," says Heidi Reeves, activities director at Mt. Baker. "You'll really see some faces light up when the animals are in the room."
The care center also has had a visit from a therapy lama that nuzzled the residents and was, in turn, petted by them. Another time, staff members brought their horses, giving the seniors a chance to feed the animals outside.
The Willows, a care facility in Bellingham, lets its residents have their own pets, on a case-by-case basis. The Willows has had up to 10 dogs and more than 20 cats sharing shelter with their owners.
"We want to treat people as we'd like to be treated ourselves, and I wouldn't move someplace without my animal family member," says Viki Essex, the manager.
For information about Pet Partners, including visits to care facilities, call 425-679-5500 or visit petpartners.org.
Lauren Kramer is a Bellingham freelance writer. Read her work online at laurenblogshere.com.