Dogs and the Elderly

As an only child growing up in New York City, I hounded my parents for a dog.  They held fast. Then, in the eighth grade, playing stickball with friends after school, I came upon a mutt tied to a barbershop pole. The barber told me the dog had been wandering around on its own. Did I want it?

I called my parents, and to my amazement they said I could bring the dog home. He still had a rope around his neck, leading me to name him “Dilly,” after the famous bank robber John Dillinger who I mistakenly thought had been hanged. (He was actually killed in a shootout with police.)

Despite my having rescued him from homelessness, Dilly never really cared for me. My mother was his favorite. Later in life I made a serious joke – that I’d had sibling rivalry with a dog, and lost.

It’s now 57 years since I’ve taken care of a dog. My wife and I have never owned one, but this week we have Delilah, our older son’s four year old Labradoodle, staying with us while he and his family visit his sister-in-law.  Delilah, who I take to be a typically affectionate dog, is giving me lessons on why dogs are important to so many over 65ers, and how they can often be “therapeutic.” Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

Affirmation. Delilah is intensely interested in where I am and what I’m doing. When I get home the welcome she gives me is a dog’s version of a standing ovation. We elderly folks tend to receive less external affirmation as we age. A dog creates a one member, four-legged fan club!

Companionship. Anthropologists tell us that dogs have been part of human communities for more than 10,000 years.  As I write this, Delilah is lying at my feet.  Many over 65ers have lost a partner or close friends. And, with retirement, whatever camaraderie the work environment provided is also gone. Dogs can potentially soften these blows. This isn’t a new idea. In 1870 a farmer whose dog had been shot and killed sued for damages. In his closing speech his lawyer argued: “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.”

Social connections. Dogs have to be taken out. That necessity gets us out and about. Just as taking children to the playground in an earlier phase of life leads to human contacts, so does going out with a dog. Even in Delilah’s short stay I’ve talked with folks on the street who I’d not met before. This “ice breaker” function with other humans can be a valuable antidote to social isolation.

Purpose. We all need a reason to get up in the morning. Family responsibilities and work are common sources for our sense of purpose. But for many over 65ers, these springs dry up. In my profession the quest for purpose becomes a problem when elderly physicians hang on to clinical practice even though their skills are waning dangerously. Conversations with friends or a search on the web will quickly produce testimony that caring for a dog adds structure to one’s day and provides a sense of being useful to another living being. Many dog owners refer to the dog as a “baby” or “child” that requires their care.

Health. Researchers in the Tirol region of Austria found that elderly dog owners walked their dogs for an average of a mile each day. In addition to adding to a sense of purpose, the walks are good for musculoskeletal health. Research on impact of dog ownership is limited, but there are reasonably strong suggestions of benefit for heart health and mental health.

Living in the moment. Gurus since Buddha’s time have urged us to live in the moment as a pathway to inner peace and happiness. But as a species, we humans don’t practice these  preachings very well. In a study that used Iphones to monitor several thousand volunteers around the globe, the subjects were distracted from what they were doing 47% of the time! Unlike humans, dogs are naturals at living in the moment. For Delilah, chasing a ball or a stick, or simply walking down the street, is all she needs for utter happiness. She’s either engrossed in what she’s doing or dozing on the floor. My strong hunch is that dog owners imbibe at least a bit of their dogs’ “meditative” capacity.

Although I’ve not had a pet since my less-than-perfect teen age dog relationship, over the years I found it easy to empathize with the importance of pets in my patients’ lives. Many times we made use of the animal relationship in therapy. With one patient we discerned how the central problems of mood and self image played out with her horse, leading us to declare that the horse was “the real therapist.” With another, illness in his aging dog let us do useful work in an anticipatory manner on his vulnerability to loss. If I were still in practice, I’d give serious consideration to prescribing a dog rather than a pill for at least some of my older patients.

I hope dog-owning Over 65 readers will add to or correct my comments.

Jim Sabin, M.D., 74, is an organizer of Over 65, a clinical professor of population medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a Fellow of the Hastings Center.





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