CC #308

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Conversations With Carol #8
Pets: == Reward: Happiness and Better Health
<By Carol Abaya, M.A.

This is the scenario.  You are forced to move to an island.  You have no choice.  You will live on this island for the rest of your life.  You will have no communication with the outside world.  And you can take only 5 things or people with you.  Everything and everyone else will be left behind.

"I’ll take my dog" said one gray haired man.  "Only my dog."

This is Carol Abaya.

In my public speeches, I do what I call an audience interactive loss exercise.  The scene is described above.  It’s objective is to help people understand how loses in life can impact one’s emotional well-being.

At any rate, in a recent speech before a local Kiwanis Club, one man wrote down his dog.  After getting everyone else’s "list", I asked him, "Why do you want to take only your dog?  What about family or other things?"

The answer.  "He’ll love me forever."

This simple answer illustrates the forever very special love between pets and humans - unconditional love.  Whether a person is 8 or 80 - or somewhere in between - everyone needs love.  One of the best sources of love - completely unconditional love - comes from pets.

There are many stories I can share with you about how pets have impacted a person’s life.  Pets CAN make a real difference in the happiness and well being of their owners.  Basic human emotions and needs are met by the presence of a pet.

A single teacher lived alone in a multi-story apartment house.  She loved dogs.  Because she lived in an apartment, she never thought of getting one herself.

One day a student brought her a very little puppy, an ugly puppy.  She loved that puppy for 18 years.  She always said, "It was the greatest gift anyone ever gave me!"

Why?  "I used to come into a dark and empty apartment.  Now, I am greeted with  love."

A professional unmarried woman lived with and cared for her father until he died at age 80.  After her father’s death, her cheery, positive personality changed.  She became depressed and angry.  Her niece brought her a five-year-old poodle.  Overnight her happy personality returned.  For 13 years, the poodle was her constant companion.  She even took the dog to work.

Why the change in how she felt?  She told me, "After my father died, I felt no one needed me.  Then something else depended on and needed me."

One vet put it this way.  "Pets are fast to share love.  An animal never questions who you are, your sex, your color, your age, how much money you make.  If you treat an animal right, the love is returned many times over."

Besides love, pets provide companionship, are a friend a buddy.  They give purpose to the life of an older person - and those not so old.  Pets give one a reason to get up in the morning.  A dog may have to be walked; a cat or bird fed.

For you, if you live alone, or have an aging relative, pets can help reduce loneliness.  You can talk to it, but it doesn’t talk back.  You can communicate with it, and it does respond.  And this loving response may provide the love that may not be gotten from anyone else.  Pets give love with no strings attached.

Whether the owner is a young child, who has the responsibility of feeding the pet, or an older person living alone, pets help increase one’s own self worth.  They give life more meaning.

I visited a nursing home several years ago and spent the morning with Bobbie, who "showed" me around and "introduced me" to a number of the residents.  And the following is from an article I wrote at the time.

"Bobbie starts her day at 6 A.M., following the laundry patrol as it moves through this 123-bed nursing home.  By 6:30 A.M., the administrator shows up and is warmly greeted by Bobbie.  As he makes his first round of the day, he is accompanied by Bobbie. Then Bobbie moves on to the nursing staff break room.

At 8:00 A.M., the home’s activities director comes in, and Bobbie has breakfast.  Then Bobbie accompanies her, for another tour.

And, at 11:15 A.M., Bobbie takes still another walk around as residents get ready for lunch.

As she passes, residents smile and say "good morning" or "hi there."  Hands go out to touch in affection.  Smiling staff members also stop to "chat," and residents’ families are charmed by Bobbie’s calmness and interest in the residents.  More affectionate touching.

In between her walks, Bobbie can be found in the activities room of this nursing home, resting or looking for snacks.

Who is Bobbie?  Who brings smiles to everyone’s faces, and makes everyone "feel good?"

Bobbie is a shepard-collie mix, former stray dog, who was placed here by an animal rescue group.

The activities director, explained.  "Periodically various animal organizations brought dogs and cats in, but just for a few hours.  Residents always reacted positively.  So I thought, why not have one here all the time?"

When she first approached the owner, he said he was skeptical, but agreed to try it.  Afterwards, he told me that it seemed as if Bobbie had always been there.

"The whole atmosphere has changed with Bobbie here every day.  Everyone is more relaxed and smiling.  Former cranky people now smile, and their personalities have changed.  This goes for staff as well as residents."

The Animal Bond

The human- animal bond has been recognized throughout history.  But only in the last decade or so have the physical, psychological and social benefits of this relationship began to be fully appreciated.

According to a study by National Institute of Health, primitive people found that human-animal relationships were important to their very survival.  Pet keeping was common in hunter-gatherer societies.  In our own time, the great increase in pet ownership may reflect a largely urban population’s often unsatisfied need for intimacy, nurturance, and contact with nature.  

The same study also says that "Relaxation, meditation, and stress management have become recognized therapies for attempting to reduce blood pressure before pharmacological methods are prescribed.  It therefore seems reasonable that pets, who provide faithful companionship to many people, also might promote greater psychosocial stability for their owners, and thus a measure of protection from heart disease."

A number of studies have reported that pets can influence physiological elements such as heart rate and blood pressure.  One study found that heart attack survival rates were much higher among pet owners than among nonowner.

The conclusion that pets have a positive effect on the health of older people is based on a number of studies which evaluated the importance of social ties and relationships for those experiencing life changes.  They conclude that negative changes in health or social situations are lessened in the cases of older pet owners.      

If a person has lost a long time and loved spouse, pets can help during the bereavement period.  There’s still a "live" being -- the dog or cat, for example -- giving the survivor affection and love.

Pets often help people, especially the young and the elderly, recover faster from illness or an operation.

Pets also help reduce depression.  Remember the woman we talked about earlier today.

And when feelings of self-worth decrease with age and infirmity increases, pets can help people maintain a better sense of importance and well being.

Remember we talked about roles in our first visit and that the parenting and spousal roles provide the centerpieces of human relationships.

Remember the words we used to define the parenting role - love, nurture, take care of.  These are the centerpieces of human emotions.  They help us fulfill our human need to be needed.  They are very important.

Regardless of one’s age or mental status, nurturing someone, or something else is very important.  Remember the woman we talked about earlier today, who lost her father, and then "nurtured" her poodle?

Even if a person has Alzheimer’s or dementia and is, in a sense, not tied in with reality, the nurturing emotion and the need to nurture is still there.  Even the demented remember how "good" they felt in the parenting and spousal roles.  How they felt they had done "good" - how happy they were playing these roles.  Their self-esteem was at a high level.

So, now when the traditional roles of being a spouse and parent are no longer "here", you need to understand aging parents’ feelings of loss. You need to  seek ways of reintroducing the nurturing concept into their life.

We’ve talked about the animal-human bond - especially with dogs and cats.

We know walking a dog can ensure that the human also gets beneficial exercise.

How else do pets help?

Many other people especially in their 80s, don’t talk about their feelings - it’s not something that was "done" as they grew into adulthood.  So, talking to a pet - a dog, a cat, even a bird  - helps reduce stress and tension.  Petting an animal - sitting there stroking soft fur - has been shown to help reduce blood pressure.

Often a person feels sorry for himself or herself after losing a spouse and doesn’t want to cook just for herself.  So, nutrition goes down the drain.  Remember we talked about this in our third visit.  Having to feed a pet, makes one think about food for self - and can provide the incentive for the human to eat on a more regular basis.

Just having another living thing in the house or apartment provides companionship and helps relieve the "empty" feeling.  Remember the teacher who was greeted with love when she came home.

Before I talk about pets other than dogs or cats, let me make note of a little known law that does exist in several states in relation to apartments, especially senior ones, and pets.

Such a law states that if a person has a pet before  moving into a senior apartment and can properly take care of it, that the person can keep that pet in the apartment.  It doesn’t matter if it is a large dog or a small cat.  You should check the law in your state - maybe the state health department or the department that handles senior services.

Let’s look at alternatives to having a dog, because dogs require the most regular and constant care.

Cats can provide just as much love, and don’t have to be walked.  And they can be left alone overnight, for a day or so.

Birds are marvelously interactive with people.  Singing birds are usually lively in the morning, and you have "music" in the house.  They talk to you and love to be touched.

Their feathers are colorful and bright.  They are nice to just look t and enjoy.  Many can be taught simple tricks.  I remember the parakeets my grandfather had - always called Johnny - where he got this name from, I never knew.  Johnny was often found on my grandfather’s shoulder.  My grandfather would say, "Johnny, come let’s get a bath."  Johnny would walk down his arm into the palm of my grandfather’s hand, which was under the faucet.        

He had one of those little toys that roll over.  He would tell Johnny "go fight."  The bird would get down on the floor and knock the toy around.

And when my grandfather was reading the paper and ignoring Johnny, the bird would hop onto the table and peck away at the paper to get attention.

Choosing a Pet

Do keep in mind that a live pet, especially a dog, may not be good for a really elderly person or someone with limited physical and mental capabilities.

How do you decide?  How does one choose the "right" pet?  Making sure a pet is right for the person and situation can go a long way in ensuring positive bonding.  

Here are some guidelines:

  • What are the physical and mental capabilities of the "owner?"
  • What care can the owner give himself or herself?  And what outside help would be needed?
  • What is the owner’s own lifestyle?  Does he or she travel a lot?  Go away on the weekends or for short vacations?
  • In choosing a dog, in particular, there are 5 elements to evaluate:  size; need for exercise; daily care, such as feeding; grooming and cleaning; and temperament.

Size- Older people can’t bend down to pet a small dog, might not see it and trip or fall.  On the other hand, a small dog can jump onto your lap for cuddles.

Housebreaking a puppy means the owner has to bend down to pick up papers or wipe up puddles.  An older person might slip on the puddles, fall and get hurt.

A medium size mature dog (not a puppy) is ideal especially for an older person - as long as the dog’s head can easily be petted if the owner is sitting down.  The dog’s head should be level with the person’s knee.

Daily Care:  Can the owner handle day to day feeding and exercising?  Or will help be needed?  And if so, is regular help available?  Cats and birds need less daily care than dogs.  Litter boxes or cages need to be cleaned every couple of days instead of daily.  It is good to have a third person ‘oversee’ care, just in case the pet is not being fed properly or groomed enough.

Exercise:   Everyone needs a certain amount of exercise.  So walking is very good for you.  However, a dog that has a lot of bouncy energy and needs a lot of exercise, is not appropriate for a nursing home or older person at home.  If there is a fenced-in yard, "letting out" and exercise is less of a concern.  But if a dog needs to be walked several times a day, who will do it?

Grooming:  Long haired dogs need to be carefully evaluated..  Floating hair and brushing can be major problems.  So, short haired dogs (and cats) may be preferable.

 How much grooming and brushing is needed, and who will do these chores?  At the same time, for an older owner, the physical contact with another living thing can be very beneficial.

Temperament:  Temperament and "sociability" are critical.  A calm personality is a must.  Hyperactive animals - whether the specific animal or breed of dog -  are not appropriate.

Love & Self-esteem

We’ve talked a lot today about live pets. We’ve seen how Bobbie makes a difference every day in that nursing home.

When we were children, especially girls, we played "house."  We took care of our babies, our dolls, or we slept with a stuffed animal.  I can remember all the marvelous tea parties we had!  We would set a "date" to get together

For an Alzheimer’s person, dolls and stuffed animals can help fulfill those very important nurturing and being needed emotions.

A woman in a nursing home was walking toward me, hugging a doll, and crooning to it.   As I reached her, I said," Oh, you’re taking such good care of your baby."  You can’t believe how her smile lit up her whole very wrinkled face.

She remembered her productive role of being a parent, and that made her happy.

I’ve enjoyed our visit today - as I’m a pet person myself - dogs in particular - from small fox terriers as a kid to gigantic 135-pound and 100-pound great Pyrennes.  And now my 50-pound Norwegian Elkhound, Saya.

Just remember that any decision to get a pet for someone else MUST be made "with" that person, not "for" that person.  "Surprises" all too often end up in animal shelters.

The ideal situation is to have the person whose pet it will be  do the choosing.  It may mean several trips to a breeder. The feeling of rightness will come from within the person whose pet it is to be.  Best advice  --  don’t pick out a pet  just for the sake of having one.

Conversations With Carol #8 ends this pilot series of tapes.
We hope you have enjoyed reading the scripts
and found the information helpful.

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