Depression, anxiety and loneliness are mental health issues for many older adults. Living the credo from a 2005 movie, Must Love Dogs, can help keep us active, provide companionship, and give meaning and purpose to our lives at any age.
As we get older, we often lose some of the relationships that keep us grounded, be it a spouse, friends or a career. While seniors in relationships experience these issues of loss, they may have a larger impact for those who live alone. I suggest that not only can a dog help us with these issues, they can also help us find new human companions.
How can our relationship with man’s (and woman’s) best friend be this special? There is scientific evidence to back up the positive benefits of dog ownership. A Japanese study published in Science (April 2015) found that staring into a dog’s eyes generates the hormone oxytocin in both the dog and the human. This is the hormone helps generate emotional bonds in humans. We too bond by staring into each other’s eyes. A more recent genetic study shows some canines have genes which correspond to human genes that make us more outgoing and friendly.
Beyond the science, if you’ve ever had a dog as a pet, you have experienced unconditional love. The wagging tail. The happy expression. The dog’s need to be touched by humans and to touch its owner, express this special bond between our two species. We too have a need for physical touch. Exercising a dog and caring for their needs is a positive and affirming activity. Most dogs crave attention. They will show you one way or another that they want to be walked, petted and played with. Yes, they are a responsibility. They need to be fed, exercised and loved. But that connection adds purpose to our life.
Walking a dog gives both of you exercise, a chance to get out and be with nature (another healing activity) and the chance to connect with people. If you don’t get out of the house, how are you going to meet new people? A walk in the neighborhood, or going to a dog park are fine ideas. Being in the moment while walking the dog can be akin to a meditation. It’s a calming, restorative activity. Practice focused breathing, shut off the mind chatter and be aware of what you and your pet see and sense while getting out and about.
Just like human relationships, if we put the work into the relationship with our dog(s), we’ll reap the rewards. Just be informed about what kind of dog you choose. Many breeds were developed for specific functions. These tendencies may make one sort of canine a better fit for your needs. Still young and athletic? Some dogs will love to run with you. Concerned about safety at home? Some dogs are more protective than others. But whatever pure, or mixed breed you choose, make sure sociability is high on their skill list. And, make sure you are willing and able to spend the time training a pet to be the kind of companion you desire.
If you choose wisely and care for them well, a dog will be an endless source of love, joy and companionship and truly will help make your golden years more golden.
EPPIA is a networking group whose members are committed to the welfare of seniors in our community. EPPIA members meet to learn, exchange information and discuss issues in the field of aging. For more information on EPPIA and local senior resources, please visit our website at www.edenprairieaging.org