New Initiative Pairs the Elderly With Dogs to Combat Loneliness

pairing dogs with elderly

Story at-a-glance -

  • A new initiative in the U.K. pairs lonely seniors with local dogs, which keeps the elderly from being lonely, gives them something to look forward to and also gives the dog another loving companion to dote on them
  • There’s a financial aspect to loneliness and isolation experienced by seniors, as research in the U.K. reveals that related health care costs can reach as much as £6,000, which in the U.S., where the costs are likely similar, is close to $8,000
  • Whether lonely seniors have dogs visit them or adopt a pet for themselves, they’re blessed with companionship and social interaction, increases in their level of physical activity, reduced stress and blood pressure levels, and more
  • If you know of a senior who could benefit from a dog companion, there are several things to consider first, such as matching the right dog to the right owner and whether or not the senior can afford the costs involved
  • At the end of the day, it’s connection with others that makes the difference for humans, and connection with a loving dog may fit the bill when no other alternatives seem available, offering benefits to both the person and the pooch

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

One of the saddest aspects of life is loneliness, and regardless of your demographic, the elderly may feel it more keenly than any other group. While technology may allow most people to communicate with their friends and family, that’s often not the case with Baby Boomers or the previous generation, known as Traditionalists.1 A recent study conducted by Age UK2 reports that 1.9 million elderly people feel ignored and invisible.

Many even admit they can go for days without seeing anyone. While nearly everyone hearing such statistics may find themselves helpless to do anything meaningful to change them, several groups in the U.S. as well as the U.K. have found a perfect solution that helps more than just lonely seniors; it helps dogs fulfill what they love doing: providing friendship and a social connection beyond their own families.

Dog Dates, launched in the U.K. and run by Mars Petcare, matches elderly individuals with dogs in the same locality who need social time themselves. The pairs can spend as much time as they’d like with each other. Many head outside to enjoy nature, exploring parks or walking trails.

Other people like relaxing and hanging out with the dog they’ve been matched with. There was a trial run of sorts before the program took flight. Doreen Barratt, matched with a 1-year-old golden Cockapoo, explains what it was like before her inclusion in the program:

“I live in a flat, which is extremely lonely, and in the 12 years I’ve lived there, it’s become more and more lonely, as previous residents who were my age have moved out of the area and younger people have moved in. Everybody is very nice, but I just don’t have much in common with them and they work during the day, so no one is around. I wake up in the morning and I think: Oh no, another day. I truly do, it’s horrible.”3

Now, she says spending time with her new companion gives her something to look forward to when she gets up in the morning. “It means everything,” she says simply. “It’s different. It’s living.”

Other Ways Dogs Can Help the Elderly

One individual named Jenny explained that her loneliness was due to her abusive marriage, and although she was now separated from her husband, she had lost much of her trust in people. When she, too, was matched with a friendly, local canine, she also connected not only with the dog’s human family members but other dog walkers. She also found a connection with members of the community she lives in.

According to Laura Alcock-Ferguson, executive director of Campaign to End Loneliness, there’s a financial aspect to loneliness and isolation. She says research her organization has conducted reveals related health care costs can reach as much as £6,000, which in the U.S. is close to $8,000. She observes:

“But schemes like Dog Dates can be a fantastic part of the solution. Dogs are a great icebreaker and make it easy for people to chat and connect; we are delighted to see Dog Dates rolled out across the UK.”4

Aging Care notes that whether they live by themselves or in a group facility, when elderly people adopt a pet for themselves, it offers more than just companionship and social interaction. It can also increase their level of physical activity, reduce stress, lower their blood pressure levels and even help them learn.

Katharine Hillestad, a veterinarian in Wisconsin, observes, “A new pet can stimulate someone to read up on an animal or breed, which can be very mentally stimulating and important at that age.”5 Jay P. Granat, Ph.D., a psychotherapist from New Jersey, contends there are other important “intangibles” that dogs provide:

“Dogs and other pets live very much in the here and now. They don't worry about tomorrow. And tomorrow can be very scary for an older person. By having an animal with that sense of now, it tends to rub off on people.”6

Dogs as Angels and ‘Divine Messengers of Love’

Linda and Allen Anderson, a couple who founded the Angel Animals Network in Minneapolis, say pets can help fill the loneliness gap for the elderly and also reduce depression. The number of times they’ve been told that until their pets came along and helped fill that void, their lives were “incredibly barren,” even when the pet in their life came with residual problems, is more than they can count.

In their book “Angel Dogs: Divine Messengers of Love,” they shared a case in point about a golden retriever named Bonnie, who became an integral part of the family who adopted her. Her owners felt that as long as Bonnie was in the house, they didn’t feel alone. As they got older and stayed home more often, they loved their dog’s companionship.

That’s just one of a plethora of stories you’ll hear all over the world. If people are unable to care for pets on their own, it’s helpful to get visits from dogs who are cared for by someone else. A psychologist in New York City, Penny B. Donnenfeld, Ph.D., takes her dog to work with her to visit with people who come into her office. Her observations:

“I’ve seen those with memory loss interact and access memories from long ago. Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging.”7

People Aren’t the Only Ones Who Benefit

When older people adopt dogs to have an accessible, live-in companion, they also offer the same thing to pets who may otherwise live their lives out in a shelter, or with a much worse scenario. A veterinarian in Chicago, Tony Kremer, who runs Help Save Pets (originally named the Humane Society) with his wife Meg, says the pets adopted by lonely seniors are literally lucky dogs.

They’ve gone from the pound to paradise; because most of those adopting are retired, they have plenty of time to devote to a dog who was once unloved and unwanted. If an older loved one in your life is experiencing loneliness or isolation, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that the health of people who find themselves with a dog to take care of has often improved dramatically and quickly. At the same time, if you’re considering suggesting they adopt a dog, there are several things to consider first:

Can they (or you) afford the expenses of pet food, veterinary care and other costs?

The pet’s health, as an elderly or unhealthy dog can put stress on their elderly owners

Does the dog have a good personality and overall temperament to match that of the senior human?

If your elderly loved one is ill or impaired, you may want to consider a therapy dog for them instead

Matching the right dog to the right owner, or companionship pairing, is an important decision that requires a lot of thought

Asking questions can help determine the dog that will be the right fit, especially if the elderly human is set in their ways

A puppy (or a kitten) may not be the best choice for elderly people, including lonely ones, as the pet may outlive their owner

It may be tempting to get two pets so they can keep each other company, but that might keep the animals from bonding with their new human (although this is debatable)

If you decide that a visiting pet rather than pet ownership is best for your circumstances, you may find that shelters in your area offer a similar situation to Dog Dates. In fact, some shelters specialize in these types of pairings. Fortunately, some senior centers and retirement communities recognize the many benefits for lonely oldsters of time spent with a loving dog. An example is Helping Paws Animal Shelter in Woodstock, Illinois, which explains:

“Our Senior to Senior adoption program is all about senior citizens rediscovering the joys of having a cat or dog in their lives. The program helps place senior cats and dogs, who are 7 years of age and older, with senior citizens who are 65 years of age or older. The adoption fee is waived for any approved senior citizen adopting a senior pet.”8

For lonely seniors, connection with a loving dog may fit the bill when no other alternatives seem available. The beauty of it is that for both humans and dogs, who are people oriented after all, both benefit. Helping Paws quotes John Grogan from the film “Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog”:

“Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.”9

+ Sources and References