How Animals Can Play a Critical Role in a Senior’s Life

Eli and “Waffles” are part of the Alexandria ‘Friendly Visitor” program for seniors. Courtesy photo

By MaryAnne Beatty

Senior Services of Alexandria (SSA) understands what a critical role animals can play in many seniors’ lives. Through SSA’s Friendly Visitor program, volunteers are making a difference in the lives of socially isolated seniors in Alexandria. There are weekly visits, friendships are formed and sometimes it includes becoming friends with the volunteer’s pet. This happened when Eli and Morgan became a Friendly Visitor pair and then “Waffles” joined the group. The trio became fast friends. The senior not only looked forward to his “human” visitor, but also the “four-legged one.”

Numerous studies exist confirming that pets play an important part in a senior’s life, offering not only companionship but also positive health benefits. Positive effects tied to active pet ownership included lower body mass index, fewer reported doctor visits and less sedentary time, according to findings in The Gerontologist that were based on seniors with an average age of 67 who participated in the larger Health and Retirement Study in 2012.*

Pets provide a comfort system and actually produce a chemical chain reaction in the brain that helps to lower levels of the stress-inducing hormone, cortisol, and increase the production of the feel-good hormone, serotonin. In fact, pets have been shown to reduce blood pressure and stress levels in humans and can actually help lower cholesterol, fight depression and help protect against heart conditions. All great reasons for seniors to have a pet! **

The ANIMEALS Program Provides Pet Food

About 5 years ago, SSA and the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA) teamed to start the Animeals program. SSA knew that some seniors in their care had to make the difficult choice between feeding themselves or their pets, or even giving up their pets when they could not afford the additional food. The AWLA receives regular donations of pet food and supplies, which cannot all be used at the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter, and we realized that working together, we could help seniors in need to care for and keep their pets. SSA volunteers now deliver pet food and supplies provided by the AWLA on a monthly basis every month to seniors who need the assistance. Animeals is such a win/win program meeting the goals of both SSA and AWLA. We are able to help animals stay with their loving owner who is then benefiting in so many ways from this companionship,” says Megan Webb, AWLA’s Executive Director.

Many of the seniors in the program are so grateful for the help and no longer worry about food/supplies for their pets. However, many still worry “Who will care for my pet if I get sick and go into the hospital or if I die.” The Animeals program benefits have recently expanded to offer all enrollee’s AWLA’s Plan for Pets program at no cost. This will help each pet owner come up with a plan that can be enacted if or when the time comes.

Executive Directors Mary Lee Anderson of SSA and Megan Webb of the AWLA are continuing their collaboration by working together to bring more pets into Friendly Visitor Program. This program expansion is still ongoing, but we think that seniors who love animals and can’t have one of their own would benefit from a visit from a friendly dog or cat. As SSA and the AWLA know, friends come in all shapes and sizes.

If you are a senior or know of a senior that could use assistance in getting pet food and supplies through the Animeals program, email communications@seniorservicesalex.org or call 703-836-4414, ext. 113. Also, if you are looking for a volunteer opportunity to make a difference in a senior’s life, email friendlyvisitor@seniorservicesalex.org or call 703-836-4414, ext. 120.

*US News and World Report – https://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/2017-10-04/seniors-and-pets-health-benefits-and-challenges.

**A Place for Mom, www.aplaceformom.com/blog, May 16, 2017.

Mary Anne Beatty is the Director of Outreach for Senior Services of Alexandria.