Pet Care – A Family Caregiver Role Often More Important Than Realized

As our senior loved ones age, so do their beloved pets.

Their dogs, cats, fish and birds are part of their family, often loved like their own children and filling a big role in successful aging.

Companionship provided by pets as our seniors age can keep them physically and mentally healthy.

One study found that elder pet owners had lower blood pressure and lower lipid levels in their blood (triglyceride and cholesterol) compared to non-pet owner peers.

Pets can improve socialization of older adults too. Think how many people stop to talk to a pet owner walking their dog a few times a day.

Pets also provide unconditional love and keep your senior in the here and now instead of worrying about the future. Because they give and receive love, it can reduce isolation and depression for seniors living alone.

As beneficial as they are for ours seniors, pets present issues family caregivers should consider to help support their senior loved ones keeping a pet, getting a new pet or caring for their pet, if needed.

Pet Care Affordability

The undeniable reality is that pets cost money.

How can our seniors on a fixed income or with less income than expenses properly care for their pets?

Some pets are not as expensive to keep as others. Certainly a fish is a cheaper pet than a puppy who needs more medical care, daily attention and food.

Seniors can get insurance for pet medical care and lower cost medications, using a local pharmacy for certain drugs.

PAWS NY is a nonprofit organization that provides pet care assistance to individuals facing both physical and financial obstacles so that they can keep their pets and continue to benefit from the human-animal bond. New York City also helps seniors with pet needs through JASA Pets which is a social service agency that helps match volunteers with seniors to help with giving medication, help with finances and grieving a pet loss.

Some Meals on Wheels programs offer assistance with meals for seniors’ pets in addition to those for the seniors themselves. The theory is that relieving eligible seniors of the burden of buying pet food and supplies will allow them to better meet their own basic needs. Because this is not a national program, not all locations offer this service.

There are also pet food banks or pantries where seniors can get access to free pet food and supplies. Check your location for facilities near you.

There are many assistance programs and organizations in local communities that you and your senior loved one can locate. They can provide help with care, help with food and supplies and paying for vet services.

Potential Pet Issues for Seniors

Pets offer great benefits for seniors but they can also create problems that need a plan to overcome.

  1. Some older pets can cause a problem for visitors so may unintentionally lead to isolation of your senior loved one. Older animals can be aggressive, bite or scratch visitors which could limit in home visits to the point of isolation.
  2. Some seniors may hesitate to leave the pet home alone for extended periods, which may cause seniors to remain at home foregoing travel or even outings more than they would without a pet.
  3. Pets can pose a danger of falls for seniors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) epidemiologist “over 86,000 people per year have to go to the emergency room because of falls involving their dogs and cats, and these fractures can be devastating for the elderly.” The most common injuries were fractures and highest fracture rate was among those greater than 75 years. Common hazards were falling and tripping over not only the animals but also their toys. Experts recommend putting a bell on the collar of your senior’s pet so everyone will know where they are especially if underfoot.
  4. Another danger for both owner and pet comes when the senior can no longer care for the pet, either physically or financially. For some seniors walking the dog is no longer achievable. There are assistive devices available that can help your senior care more easily for their pets when their mobility is limited such as handles to lift feeding dishes, long handled kitty litter scoops, and litter pans with handles. There are also pet sitters or walkers who can help seniors who can no longer safely walk their dog.
  5. Caregivers should be alert to emotional consequences for seniors when their beloved pet dies. There are respite programs available to help seniors cope with aging pets and end of life programs for aging pets that provide not only treatment for the dying pet but assistance with care and bereavement after death.
  6. If your senior would like the companionship of a pet but can’t handle or afford the ongoing care needs, perhaps a virtual pet would be a solution for your family.

When Seniors Can No Longer Live at Home

Pet experts agree that a plan should be formulated for the care of a senior’s pet for whatever situation might arise in the future.

  • The care of their pet should be stipulated in a will and a caregiver appointed in case of your senior’s death. Did you know that you can establish a trust for your pet? You can using a Pet Protection Agreement.
  • A plan for who will care for the pet in case your senior is hospitalized is important too. Who will feed the cat or care for the dog during their hospital or rehab stay should be agreed upon before it is needed.
  • What plans are there for an emergency? Will the pet be allowed in an emergency shelter? Where can the pet be kept if evacuation is needed and who will transport the pet? If they can go to the shelter, how will they get there and what will be needed when they arrive? Do they own pet carriers?
  • If your senior can no longer live at home and needs to enter a facility, what will happen to the pet? Can a family member take over their care? Will a friend be willing to adopt their pet?
  • It might be helpful to discuss with the veterinarian any alternate options in their locale that could help find a loving home in case one is needed. There are no-kill pet shelters that might harbor their pet until a new owner can be found. There are also foster programs in case your senior can no longer care for a pet that might be able to help find a new home for the family pet.
  • Maybe there is a pet-friendly senior living facility that would allow their pet to live with them too or be adopted as a facility pet for all seniors to love.

Worth Extra Effort for Family Caregivers

As with anything that family caregivers face when caring for senior loved ones, planning for all possibilities and being flexible for any situation that arises is important with pets, too.

Helping senior loved ones care for their pets often becomes one of the roles taken on by family caregivers, a role that may provide benefits to your senior that makes the extra effort worthwhile.

For most people, the joy and happiness that a pet brings to seniors far outweighs the concerns that might require planning in the future.