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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published March 13 2010

Bursack: Pets add joy to lives of elders

Dear Carol: My grandmother should be in assisted living, but she won’t move because of her ancient cat. I know she loves the cat, and I think the cat is good for her. Are there places that take pets along with the elderly? – Ben

Dear Ben: Numerous studies have shown that elders can benefit from having animals around. The Web site Pets for the Elderly, at www.petsfortheelderly.org, is loaded with studies showing how good animals can be for lonely elders.

Many nursing homes now have pets as part of their environment. This approach is part of the culture change movement to provide more resident-centered care. Cats, dogs, birds and fish add to the homelike atmosphere of any kind of care center.

More than a decade back, when my uncle entered a nursing home, there was a cat roaming the third floor of the home. While the cat generally slept in his owner’s room, he routinely visited residents daily, and most residents enjoyed the animal.

Assisted-living centers are varied and offer many differing services, but many welcome at least some types of pets. If you can’t find a large center where your grandmother can bring her cat to live, see if a smaller home of the type that cares for only, say, a half-dozen residents, would be able to accommodate her and her cat.

From personal experience, I know that taking a beloved pet away from an elder will certainly lower the quality of life for the person. It could even be enough of a loss to make the elder just give up and die in grief.

My neighbor, Joe, was one example. His despondency when his bird got out of the cage and disappeared was heartbreaking.

On the day this happened, I went to Joe’s home for my daily visit and found him depressed, with signs of tears. He was sure the bird was dead.

After a lengthy search, I found the bird hiding in some curtains and coaxed it back into the cage. When I left Joe afterward, he was in seventh heaven.

The connection between people and animals can be profound. Please do all you can to keep your grandmother and her cat together.

We live in a fairly enlightened age now where the value of animals to elders is understood. Some time and trouble on your part should help you find the right spot for your grandmother and her cat. It’s worth a search to find the right home for both.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a Web site supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.