Battling Senior Loneliness & Dementia With Pets

Creating an aging-friendly world, addressing mental health, and advocating for better, safer living conditions for elderly Americans can be as simple as acknowledging the harm of loneliness. During COVID, we saw a dramatic and damaging uptick in isolation and loneliness among elders. Specifically, among nursing home residents who were barred from seeing loved ones. For elders with dementia, this often meant complete isolation without understanding the reason. However, recent studies have shown that the isolation and loneliness commonly experienced by seniors living alone, as well as seniors with dementia, is mitigated and reduced by the presence of animals! 

Loneliness & Dementia

 “Older persons living alone are at high risk of developing dementia.”

–  Ciyong Lu et al. of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China

Loneliness and the progression of dementia have been linked. According to the CDC: “Social isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia.” And roughly one of every four adults over 65-years-old lives alone. This makes dementia and general mental decline a huge threat to most seniors. 

The Research

Ciyong Lu’s team at Sun Yat-sen University looked at 7,900 individuals with an average age of 66 to determine if owning a pet – dog or cat – helped lessen cognitive decline, and therefore the development of dementia. 

Using verbal memory, verbal cognition, and verbal fluency to measure the individual’s ability to repeat back and remember information given to them, the study found:

“Pet ownership was associated with slower rates of decline in verbal memory and verbal fluency among individuals living alone.”

However, the research showed that the presence of a pet did not influence the mental efficiency and decline of individuals who lived with other people. To determine the overall effect of living with others in addition to, or instead of, a pet, further research is needed. 

The fact that pets “offset” mental decline completely is a good sign. Not only does it tell us more about the harmful effects of isolation, giving more evidence for CMS and CDC policy reform for elderly Americans and nursing home residents, but it also inspires animal-based programs.

For instance, nursing homes that welcome pets into the facility for companionship and special events for the residents, are on the right track for decreasing the likelihood of loneliness for residents. This is something you will definitely want to take into consideration when looking for a nursing home.

PC: Donna Cecaci via Unsplash

Research like this is key to understanding the aging process, mental decline solutions, and how we can create a more welcoming world for senior citizens across the country.

If you or a loved one have been the victim of nursing home abuse or neglect, call Gharibian Law (877-460-1187) for a FREE consultation and the best legal representation.