Health Benefits of Pet Ownership for Older Adults (National Minority Health Month)

In recognition of National Minority Health Month, the Diverse Elders Coalition is featuring stories relevant to the health disparities and health issues affecting diverse older adults during April. A new story will be shared every Wednesday with additional posts shared throughout the month. Be sure to visit diverseelders.org regularly during the month of April.

April is National Minority Health Month, and the theme for this year is “Prevention is Power: Taking Action for Health Equity.” There are a lot of things diverse older adults can do to prevent serious health problems. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and having regular checkups from a health care provider can all help prevent serious health issues. Pet ownership can also help improve the health of older adults. For those who are able, walking a dog or just caring for a pet can provide exercise and companionship. Unlike dieting, exercising, and visiting health care providers, however, pet ownership does not require a high level of health literacy.

The author, Jason Coates, and his cat, Sal

The author, Jason Coates, and his cat, Sal

Many diverse older adults are at risk of isolation, though the companionship of a pet can help reduce this risk. Cultural and linguistic barriers keep many diverse seniors from developing new social contacts, and this is harmful to health. Hispanic and Asian American older adults are at particular risk of becoming isolated by cultural and linguistic barriers. LGBT seniors, including many that have experienced a lifetime of discrimination, are at risk of isolation as well. Pets provide a contact for older adults and the routine of caring for a grateful pet can provide meaning and a sense of self-worth for older adults. Taking dogs and cats for a walk also gives older adults a reason to go outdoors and interact with others.

In addition to companionship and reducing isolation, pet ownership benefits other aspects of health. By encouraging older adults to go for walks and play, pets can help seniors get the exercise they need. Without knowing that they are providing a health benefit, pets get their owners exercising. Additionally, the presence of a pet can help calm older adults with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s patients have fewer anxious outbursts if there is an animal in the home. They have found that pet owners with AIDS are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without. Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
So explore whether getting a pet would be helpful and healthful for yourself or an older adult in your life.

Jason Coates is a Public Policy Associate at the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.

READ OUR OTHER NATIONAL MINORITY HEALTH MONTH STORIES:

10 Key Points to Know About Health Disparities among Asian American and Pacific Islander Elders (National Minority Health Month)