By Dr. Becker
There’s something very special happening in Columbia, Missouri I want to share with you.
It’s a collaboration between the University of Missouri (MU) and TigerPlace, a 32-apartment retirement facility built by Americare Systems, Inc.
Unlike many retirement communities and similar facilities designed for seniors and the elderly, TigerPlace encourages residents to own pets.
TigerPlace helps seniors stay independent in homelike settings, with health services available as needed. The residents live in single level apartments with screened-in porches that lead to an outdoor walking path for the convenience of pet owners.
Students from both the veterinary medicine and nursing programs at MU visit the facility three times weekly to walk pets, clean litter boxes and provide other services as necessary.
Once a month a retired faculty member from the MU College of Veterinary Medicine provides wellness checkups for residents’ pets, and any potential health concerns can then be referred to the pet’s regular vet.
According to Rebecca Johnson, an associate professor at the MU Sinclair School of Nursing and the College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the director of the university’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction:
“Research suggests older adults live longer, healthier, happier lives when they interact with pets on a regular basis. Pets provide companionship and unconditional love that improves the overall health of aging individuals. Caring for animals gives older adults responsibility and more reasons to get up in the mornings.”
Pet Ownership Has Health and Happiness Benefits
There are many positive health benefits of owning a pet.
The simple act of stroking a dog or cat has been shown to lower cortisol levels (cortisol is a stress hormone), and elevate levels of oxytocin, prolactin and norepinephrine. These are hormones that increase feelings of nurturance, relaxation and joy.
We could all benefit from the presence of more ‘happy hormones’ coursing through our bodies, but this is particularly true for older folks.
A growing body of evidence of the health benefits of pet ownership also shows that having a pet can:
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce the incidence of allergies and asthma in children (kids exposed as babies to the dirt and allergens on furry pets tend to build stronger immune systems)
- Improve the health and longevity of people who’ve suffered a heart attack
- Increase the appetites of Alzheimer’s patients
- Relieve the depression of AIDS sufferers
Having a much-loved pet around can benefit anyone with an illness that has a stress-related component (which, of course, includes most diseases).
Our Pets Force Us to Focus Outside Ourselves
The reason your pet has such a powerful influence on your health is because the presence of a dog, cat, or other dependent creature pulls your attention away from yourself.
One of the most effective ways to reduce stress and increase feelings of optimism is to focus on something other than you. This can be a struggle for people who sense their independence slipping away and who are also dealing with the physical limitations of an aging body.
A small research projecti conducted almost 20 years ago in California illustrates how the presence of a pet influences several important aspects of life for people who are aging.
Researchers recorded the casual conversations of senior citizens as they walked their dogs in a mobile home park. All dog owners talked to and about their dogs. They gave their dogs instructions and used their names and nicknames frequently. What’s interesting about this is that the dogs caused their owners to stay in the present moment. This is often difficult for older people, many of whom tend to think often about the past or worry obsessively about the future.
Other people out for walks talked to the owners about their dogs whether the dogs were present or not. The conversations of dog owners frequently were about things in the here and now, whereas non-dog owners focused on stories about past events.
Dog owners took twice as many daily walks on average as non-owners, and reported much less dissatisfaction with their social, physical and emotional states. This shows a healthy lack of self-absorption and a happier, healthier, more hopeful outlook.
The TigerPlace Pet Initiative
The TigerPlace Pet Initiative (TiPPI) is the collaborative program between MU’s nursing school and veterinary college and the TigerPlace facility in Columbia.
TiPPI has four main goals:
- Provide a pet-positive environment at TigerPlace, which includes a program in which a variety of animals are brought in weekly to interact with residents.
- Offer high quality vet care for the pets of TigerPlace residents through the use of a faculty clinician who works with veterinary students, and a fully-equipped veterinary exam room. This also gives the students invaluable experience in learning to work with older pet owners.
- Supply foster care and adoption services for TigerPlace pets whose owners pass away or are no longer able to care for them. The first choice is always to place a foster pet with another resident of TigerPlace.
- Promote research into the benefits of human animal interaction and the human-animal bond.
TiPPI is a model for elder-care living other similar facilities should follow, according to Rebecca Johnson.
“Health care providers are quick to give walkers and canes to aging individuals to help with their physical needs, but they make it difficult for elderly individuals to keep their pets, key facilitators of emotional health,” Johnson says. “TigerPlace recognizes the benefits of pet ownership and makes it easier for residents to own pets by having pet-friendly facilities and in-house services available to help residents care for pets.”