Downtown Los Altos, with its quaint shops, blooming flowers and comfortable benches, is both visually appealing and socially inviting. If you happen to walk down Main Street on most days, in addition to pedestrians, shoppers and people drinking coffee outside one of the many cafes, you are almost certain to see people with their dogs. And you may notice that many of these people are seniors.
While animals have been a part of our lives for thousands of years, the true benefits of having a companion animal can be extensive, and for seniors, the benefits are greatly magnified.
The key to aging successfully is to engage in activities that promote physical, psychological and mental well-being. While playing golf or tennis, taking a class or playing chess can promote physical and mental health, nothing compares to having a pet.
Owning a pet can positively influence the health of older adults because of the close relationship that people form with their companion animals. By caring for another living creature, whether cat, dog, bird or rabbit, seniors can freely express and receive love. Taking care of an animal is a responsibility that not only gives someone a reason to get out of bed in the morning, but also expands the person’s social network.
Having a companion animal, no matter what kind, can improve your cardiovascular health. Scientific studies show that older people who own pets not only have lower blood pressure, they also have lower triglyceride levels and visit the doctor less frequently than those who do not own pets.
While the reasons for these results are not entirely clear, it is obvious that having a pet increases physical activity and provides opportunities for social interaction that can reduce the symptoms that aggravate most cardiovascular conditions.
Depression is a common complaint in today’s society. It is especially widespread among the elderly given the many changes that occur in later life, such as moving, retiring or losing a loved one. Not only does depression affect a person’s mood, it can contribute to memory loss, a serious concern for many seniors. Recent research indicates that there are significant psychological benefits for elders associated with owning pets. Socially isolated seniors who own pets are less depressed than seniors who do not have pets. In addition to companionship and affection, pets often provide people with a purpose.
Isolation is another factor that can negatively affect the health of a senior. However, having a companion animal can counteract the negative aspects of isolation. Studies have demonstrated that elderly pet owners socialize more frequently and are more engaged compared to those who do not own pets.
This is especially true of dog owners, because walking a dog provides the perfect opportunity to interact with others, as is seen just about every day in downtown Los Altos. Whether people ask to pet the dog, reminisce about their childhood dog, stop to chat or just smile upon seeing the dog, the increased interaction with others is obvious. While seemingly minor, overall these interactions eliminate feelings of isolation and contribute to a more positive outlook on life.
It comes as no surprise that elderly people who own dogs do more walking. Studies show that elderly pet owners are more likely to engage in vigorous exercise three or more times a week. Other studies confirm these findings, noting that elderly pet owners do more walking and, as a result, get more physical exercise than their counterparts who do not have pets.
Los Altos resident Lindy Latham, the Northern California representative of Southern California Dachshund Rescue, encourages elders to own dogs.
“Taking a dog for a walk is great exercise,” Latham said. “Once the dog expects walks at certain times, the dog will nag you into sticking to the schedule. It’s like having your own exercise motivation coach. It’s also great for your mental state to have a dog that greets you with hugs and kisses when you walk through the door.”
Aging with animals
These days, the positive impact of animals on the aging population is apparent in many ways, especially in housing.
In the past, many landlords, homeowners associations and senior living facilities prohibited residents from having pets. These draconian rules forced many elderly persons moving into such accommodations to give up a much-loved animal companion.
That has changed today. For example, both Pilgrim Haven in Los Altos, a full-service continuing care retirement community, and Stevenson House in Palo Alto, which provides affordable housing for independent seniors, allow residents to keep pets.
Adopting an animal
One of the best ways to take advantage of the health and emotional benefits of having a companion animal is to adopt one of your own. Adopting from a rescue group is a good choice because the animals are often fostered in the homes of volunteers, a situation that provides potential adopters with detailed information about the animal.
One of the dogs Latham currently fosters is Helen, a 12-year-old red miniature dachshund.
“Helen is a delightful little dog with a sweet personality that doesn’t let her age or cataracts slow her down,” Latham said. “Since someone debarked Helen in the past, she is very quiet, making her well-suited to apartment or condo living. Helen is perfectly content to spend the day in her person’s lap, and she would be a great companion for a senior human who can appreciate that life doesn’t end at 12 (dog) years.”
If you are interested in adopting Helen or another rescue dog, visit the Southern California Dachshund Rescue Web site at www.delgadog.com.
There are several organizations in the Los Altos area that have animals available for adoption, including Town Cats at www.towncats.org (you may have seen their cats at Pet’s Delight on State Street) and Humanimal at www.humanimalconnection.com, which features a number of loving cats available for adoption.
Althea T. Kippes is an elder-law consumer attorney and real estate broker with Sorella Properties at 220 Main St. in Los Altos, where she focuses on the legal and real estate needs of seniors. She volunteers at the Los Altos Senior Center as a Wii instructor and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in gerontology at San Francisco State University.