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It’s well established that pets can help people fight loneliness and depression, particularly the elderly, but a new study conducted by Meals on Wheels during the COVID-19 pandemic highlights just how valuable this bond was as people were more isolated than usual in the past year.
Meals on Wheels is a nonprofit that delivers meals to the housebound and offers clients regular companionship to promote socialization, with telephone check-ins and friendly visits. Meals on Wheels reports that one in four seniors lives alone, and the same number report feeling lonely. For many pet-parenting older adults, their pet is their closest companion and only source of comfort.
PetSmart Charities® gave Meals on Wheels a grant in 2019 to fund a three-year project to provide home-delivered pet meals and veterinary care to pets of homebound seniors, and fund research in understanding the needs of clients and the barriers they face.
Meals on Wheels conducted a study from July 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, through January 2021. They called 415 seniors with pets to learn how their pets help them, and their needs for their furry companions.
Of those surveyed, nearly all were receiving some help with pet food from Meals on Wheels, while a large number were also receiving aid with veterinary costs, pet supplies, and grooming. More than half of those surveyed said this financial help had made it possible to keep their pet.
Findings about seniors and their pets:
Seniors have a strong attachment to their pets
- Nearly all described their pets as family members, with 69 percent saying their pet was like a child.
- Almost all said their pet brings happiness and makes them healthier.
- 97 percent said they agree or strongly agree that having a pet made them feel less lonely.
- 57 percent said they were more likely to get necessary medication for their pet than for themselves.
- Seniors classified as lonely and at risk for social isolation had the strongest bonds with their pets.
Paying for pet costs
- Nearly 30 percent of respondents went without personal care or necessities for themselves, such as medical care, paying bills, utilities, in order to provide for their pets in the past two years. Another 21 percent had gone without food for themselves to feed their pets.
- 45 percent of respondents reported that they could not get preventative care for their pets in the past two years, primarily due to financial reasons. More than half did not have transportation to get to the veterinarian.
- 22 percent of respondents needed sick or emergency care for their pets but could not get it in the past two years, again mainly because of pocketbook issues.
The report concludes that expanding pet services to more seniors through Meals on Wheels would benefit the senior’s emotional well-being. It also notes that there is more need than is being met, especially regarding financial and transportation barriers for preventative and emergency veterinary care.
Other pet services that seniors said they needed but were not getting included vaccinations, grooming, boarding, dog walking, and help cleaning up after a pet.
Finally, the study noted that nearly half of older folks did not have a plan for what happens to their pet, should they pass away. It suggested that Meals staff could have this conversation with clients to ease the emotional strain. The study said that all pet programs should offer humane euthanasia or end-of-life care for pets.
With the number of elderly and their pets increasing, let’s hope this study leads to innovative ways to serve the housebound who have pets and need help. The benefits of improved mental health and reduced loneliness are a big payoff for a small investment.