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Pets as Companions for Single Seniors

Dogs, cats, birds—all serve as valuable companions for seniors who live alone and sometimes find the days long and otherwise silent.

Even if you fill your days with mentally and physically stimulating activities—at home or outside the home-- sharing the evenings with an affectionate, friendly companion can offer another level of positive interaction—and help compensate for the loss of a spouse.

If you are unable to walk your dog or don't have a large yard for it to run, a local child might help you for a minimal fee—and provide some joyful social contact as well. Besides offering companionship, dogs can help in emergencies. You have read stories of dogs awakening their owners when smelling smoke, enabling the humans to escape injury or death. If you didn't hear the alarm or it didn't work, the dog's nose would! A barking dog often scares away unwelcome visitors or alerts the owner to call for assistance.

Consider a trial period. Arrange a period of time to assess mutual adjustment, care requirements, safety issues, before making a final commitment.

You'll want to consider the possible short-term or permanent separation from your pet if you are hospitalized, need to move in with relatives or go to an assisted living facility or nursing home. Many assisted living communities will allow small dogs or cats, if the resident can fully care for them. Checking with family members and potential residences ahead of time could prevent the heartache of losing your pet down the road.

As with many good things, pets come with negative factors.

Consider safety. Animals that leave toys, food, and "borrowed" household items on the floor provide a prescription for accidents. Tripping on a dog's bone or a cat's catnip could lead to your broken bones, hospitalization and rehab—all the things you are trying to avoid. If your eyesight has deteriorated, you might not see those things on the floor until too late.

Consider cost. Even if you get a dog or cat for "free," it isn't free for long. (Formerly "free" dogs from the SPCA now cost a minimum of $163, which includes shots and spaying/neutering.) Dog and cat food isn't inexpensive anymore. Costs of medical care for your pet could easily exceed your own medical costs since Medicare does not cover pets! An office visit with a few shots could cost well over $100; add lab work and the cost rises. Costs for regular worming, tick control, rabies shots, and licenses add up.

If you'll need paid coverage when you are away from home, boarding ranges from $25-$50 a day. If you no longer drive, how will you get the pet to the vet or pet services?

If caring for a dog or cat seems daunting and costly, consider a feathered friend, especially one that can "verbally" greet you! A cockatiel, at $130-$160, for example, lives a long, healthy life with minimal care and expense. One could serve as an "attentive" companion, wish you "good morning," "good night" and chirp many friendly words in between. You'd quickly find yourself talking to your bird. On a good day, it might even whistle your favorite tune. More expensive parrots can master a more extensive vocabulary.

Pet visitation could serve as an easy alternative to ownership. Perhaps you could care for a pet short-term, for relatives, friends, neighbors. As with grandchildren, sending them home at the end of the day or weekend might provide peace and the freedom to resume your normal routines. You'd get regular doses of warm companionship without the associated costs.

Whatever arrangements you choose, having a "communicative," friendly pet provide some healthy companionship to balance isolation and loneliness, works well for many seniors. Not a substitute for human companionship, it does fill some gaps.

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