(MNN.com) -- When my great aunt became bedridden in her late 80s, every now and then I would visit the home she shared with relatives, accompanied by my dog, Lulu.
Since my aunt had spent most of her life on a farm, surrounded by cows, chickens and a motley crew of mutts, visits from my hyper pooch provided a welcome diversion from television game shows -- another reminder of the importance of pets in the lives of elderly people. Lulu often sat at my aunt's feet, keeping them warm as we chatted about the weather, neighbors who had passed away, and the "latest" technology -- including email.
The need for companionship doesn't dwindle with age, and thanks to their unconditional love and companionship, pets can help on this front and improve health in other ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention credits pets with decreasing blood pressure and loneliness while increasing opportunities to socialize and exercise. WebMD also notes new research from Miami University in Ohio and St. Louis University that indicates pet owners are more physically fit and less fearful of hurdles in everyday life. (When it comes to aging, I can use all the help I can get.)
But my dog serves as a healthy reminder that the benefits of pet ownership come at a cost. Our furry friends still need food, veterinary care and regular exercise. Fortunately, pet lovers have options to help preserve that relationship well into the golden years.
Consider hiring a pet sitter
Elderly pet owners may struggle to walk their dogs or administer medication. A pet sitter can provide that service on a regular basis. Some sitters have experience as veterinary technicians, so they also can administer shots or detect any health issues.
"Keeping a beloved pet with their owner, especially since elderly people are often lonely or isolated, is really important," says Rachel Ezzo, a pet sitter with Frogs to Dogs in Atlanta. "Aside from actually checking on the owner, the sitter also can check on the pet and make sure they are doing OK. They make sure the pet has food and water, and [look for] any illnesses that go unseen by owners who can't see as well anymore."
Pet Sitters International (PSI) offers a certification program for its global network of pet sitters, including training on health care and basic nutrition. The organization also provides an online tool that lets pet owners search for a sitter by ZIP, as well as a handy interview checklist. Ask for referrals during your search. Your veterinarian may be the best resource for advice.
Ask for help
"The last thing you want to do is take pets away," says Dr. Annie Price, owner of Ormewood Animal Hospital in Atlanta. "People live longer when they are around animals -- and are happier when they have that bond."
To accommodate elderly clients, Price considers the patient, the disease and the client's ability to follow the prescribed treatment. Sometimes that means opting for medication in liquid form rather than a pill or prescribing a dosage that can be administered once rather than twice a day. She also notes that, when asked, some veterinarians will make house calls to accommodate clients.
"There is difficulty sometimes with getting the patient here, especially cats," she says. "It would be hard to catch and put in a cat carrier and bring here."
In addition to making house calls or arranging for a veterinary technician to stop by and administer medication, Price may refer clients to one of a growing number of colleagues who make house calls on a regular basis.
Yes, some vets do make house calls
Only a handful of metro Atlanta veterinarians were making house calls in 2007, when Dr. Karen Jordan decided to create a "visiting vet" service. Now she notices several vets who are willing to visit their four-legged patients. For Jordan, it's a way to continue serving the cats and dogs she has treated since they were young. Outside of the occasional kitten, most of her patients have reached double digits and her clients are older individuals who rely on their pets for companionship.
"I had a client who lost a husband, dog and then another dog," Jordan says. "I scrambled to help her find another being to love. We ended up with a kitten -- and that got her out of bed every day. She was alone, they had no children and she started to decline in front of my eyes. Elderly owners with elderly pets have different relations that even their family members don't see."
To help preserve that relationship, Jordan's house calls often involve suggesting small changes that will help pets age gracefully, too. That may include purchasing steps so that Fluffy has an easier time climbing into bed or using yoga mats to create a slip-proof path on hardwood floors. She also helps elderly clients indentify changes in their pet's behavior.
Since dogs tend to get hot easily as they age, she notes that some dogs may prefer the cool tile of a bathroom floor to seeming comfort of an expensive memory foam bed, which can hold too much heat. She also may suggest raised food bowls to aid pets that suffer from arthritis.
An elderly cat moves a bit slower, so she may recommend that they stay indoors to avoid the risk of injury. Generally for vets who make house calls, the examination fee is similar to that of a veterinary clinic, with an added fee for the house call. (For example, Jordan charges about $40 a visit in addition to the basic exam fee. Prices can vary widely by location, so check with your vet.)
For Jordan, treating a pet in its home environment trumps even the worst commute -- and Atlanta is prone to some gnarly, stop-and-go traffic.
"Even on my worst day of driving, I love that more than being in the clinic -- it's totally different in the home," she says. "It changes the dynamic when you are on their territory. You can find out so much about what's going on by seeing the home."
To find a veterinarian who makes house calls in your area, request a referral from your vet.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Obesity can cause health issues such as diabetes or heart disease, and will exacerbate arthritis. Price cautions all clients to monitor their pet's weight, and says it's a tougher challenge for elderly pet owners. Additional calories from treats like ice cream, cookies or even pet treats can lead to pounds when pets don't exercise regularly.
"Sometimes I print a list of human foods they can safely eat that are low fat," Price says. Often that list includes carrots, green beans and air-popped (unbuttered) popcorn. She notes that cats tend to be more finicky and recommends timed feeders that allow owners to set an amount for dispensing.
Online shopping also can make life easier for pet owners of all ages. Now, I'm a big proponent for shopping in my neighborhood, but the idea of getting a deal on pricey pet food, without having to lug that 30-pound bag home myself, makes this option more appealing. Consider purchasing pet supplies for elderly relatives through sites such as Amazon or the newly launched Wag.com, which carries more than 10,000 pet products.
Have the difficult conversations early
In some situations, an elderly pet owner simply cannot handle the tasks associated with caring for a pet. Jordan suggests having an honest discussion about pet care and taking steps to either get help -- arranging for a pet sitter or family friend to make sure animals have adequate food, water and exercise -- or to consider alternative living situations. If the relative is moving to a senior living facility, consider options that allow pets.
"Animals enrich life in a way that their children used to or in a way that their spouse once did," she says. "It is important that they do stay together."
If the costs of pet care present the greatest challenge, consider resources that help seniors by offering discounted services. Many nonprofit organizations also provide assistance with veterinary expenses for the elderly. In Atlanta, Pets Are Loving Support (PALS) Atlanta offers pet food and basic veterinary care for the elderly and terminally ill. Most of the organization's nearly 500 clients are indigent and rely on PALS to help with pet necessities that can add up to $1,000 a year.
One client developed breast cancer and had tapped her savings to cover medical expenses. She reached out to Kevin Bryant, executive director of PALS, for help finding a home for her pet.
"We let her be part of the process of meeting people who would take care of the dog," Bryant says. "She was able to take care of her illness and not worry. She was at peace knowing the dog was cared for."
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