Pets Can Bring You Health, Happiness

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 4, 2018

My newly adopted three-month old chocolate lab, Molly, keeps me on my toes. Literally. My daily walks around the block and playing ball in the back yard equal over eight thousand steps calculated by my Fitbit App. Being a pet owner I can certainly vouch for research findings published over the years that indicate that older adults who also are pet owners benefit from the regular exercise and bonds they form with their companion animal.

The Positives of Owning a Pet

According to Dr. William Truesdale, owner of Seekonk, Massachusetts Central Avenue Veterinary Hospital, “having a companion animal can greatly improve your life. Of course you should always choose the right pet based upon your lifestyle and activity levels,” says the veterinarian who has practiced for over 43 years.

“Studies have demonstrated that having a pet in the home can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing related allergies or asthma. Children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall (as published in the Journal of Allergies and Clinical Immunology),” says Truesdale.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have conducted heart related studies on people who have pets. The finding showed that pet owners exhibit decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. All of which can ultimately minimize their risk for having a heart attack,” adds Dr. Truesdale, noting that people affected by depression, loneliness or PTSD may find that a companion animal may greatly improve their overall mood.

“As a dog owner myself and knowing so many people who find companionship and just plain fun as a pet owner, I can attest to the many benefits,” said AARP RI State Director Kathleen Connell. “While not for everyone, there is an abundance of evidence supporting this. I have heard so many stories about pets in senior living centers and even service pets that provide furry contact for patients in nursing homes and hospitals I know they can do so much to brighten a day. And when you are on Facebook, you almost expect to see friends’ proud dog and cat pictures.

“When it comes to dogs, they need walking. Anything that gets older people up and out of the house is a good thing, even if it requires carrying a supply of clean-up bags. Bending and stretching is exercise, you know. In addition, there inevitably is increased social interaction as people meet and make new pet-owner on the sidewalks and at dog parks. It’s all good.”

Pet-Friendly Policies Abound in Health Care Settings

Dr. Karl Steinberg, a San Diego-based hospice and nursing home medical director and Chief Medical Officer for Mariner Health Central, has seen the positive impact of pets in patient care settings. For over twenty years the long-term care geriatrician has taken his own dogs with him to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and on house calls to hospice patients almost every day. ”It generates a lot of happiness,” says Steinberg.

Steinberg sees first-hand on a daily basis the joy they bring to the residents, even those with severe dementia. “It slows down the day a little bit, because when you walk past a room and someone shouts, ‘Oh! A dog!’, you can’t just walk on down the hall. You stop and share the unconditional love, and it’s so worth it.,” says the geriatrician and hospice physician

For years, Administrator Hugh Hall has brought Bella, a Labrador Retriever, to visit residents of the West Warwick-based West View Nursing and Rehabilitation. Bella is considered “an important member” of the Rehabilitation staff of the 120 bed skilled nursing facility,” says Hall, noting the 8-year old canine is utilized by therapists to assist and motivate patients in their recovery.

“Residents love the ability to ability to interact and hold or cuddle with Bella and visiting pets,” observes Hall, noting that his dog is the “official greeter” at the facility’s main entrance. “The residents get to pet her and reminisce about their pets of the past and this memory is warm and happy,” he says.

Mike, a 12 -year old Labrador often makes the “rounds” with Geriatrician David A. Smith, MAD, CMD, at facilities in Central Texas. His pet’s impact on residents is very positive and improves the quality of his rapport with residents enabling him to get “better history and better compliance from them” he says.

“In a meta-analysis of non-pharmacologic therapies for behavioral problems in Nursing Home Residents with dementia, pet therapy was one of only a small number of interventions that showed statistical benefit,” says Smith, who is a past president of AMA: The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine.

Smith warns that there is a downside in owning a pet. Frail adults may trip over a pet. Elders may age out of the ability to care for a pet, placing an additional burden on a caregiver who must care for the pet. Plans need to be in place for the placement of a pet in case of a move to an assisted living facility or if an owner passes away.

Life-Like Pets Can Also Bring Benefits to Older Adults

But, for those who find taking care of a living pet taxing because of deceased mobility or memory loss, Hasbro, Inc., has created a new realistic pet, an animatronic cat with soft fur, soothing purrs, and pleasant meows and a barking dog, especially designed to bring companionship to older adults.

In 2015, the Joy For All Companion Pets brand, featuring the animatronic cat, was Hasbro’s first foray into products designed specifically for older adults. In addition to captivating older adults, Joy For All Companion Pets can help enhance the interaction between caregivers and their loved ones by incorporating lighthearted fun, joy, and laughter into time spent together.

In 2016, Hasbro’s the JOY FOR ALL Companion Pet brand included a lifelike pup that sounds, and feels like a real dog; when the pup’s “owner” speaks, it looks toward him/her and reacts with realistic puppy sounds. That year the Pawtucket-based toy company collaborated with Meals on Wheels America to fight senior isolation and loneliness, which affects one in four seniors across the country. Hasbro donated $100,000 to Meals on Wheels America and provided JOY FOR ALL Companion Pets to local Meals on Wheels programs across the country in order to provide comfort and companionship to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

“Aging loved ones and their caregivers have been thrilled with the Companion Pet Cats, and we are inspired by their positive feedback and personal stories,” said Ted Fischer, vice president of business development at Hasbro in a statement announcing the new life-like product. “The Cat delivers a unique way for all generations to connect deeply through interaction and play, but dog lovers continually asked when we planned to add a dog to the line. We are truly excited for the new JOY FOR ALL product – the Companion Pet Pup – to bring even more lighthearted fun and laughter to seniors and their families.”

“We heard from seniors across the country that companionship was important to their happiness. Many live alone, miss having a pet, or are no longer able to care for a pet,” said Fischer. “While it’s not a replacement for a pet, the Joy For All Companion Pet Cat is a life-like alternative that can provide the joy and companionship of owning a real pet, without the often cumbersome responsibilities,” he says.

The Joy For All Companion products are available for purchase on JoyForAll.com.

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Study Shows Meal Deliveries Positively Benefit Seniors

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 22, 2015

In 2013, Dr. Kali Thomas, an assistant professor at Brown University’s Center for Gerontology and Healthcare Research, published a study that found home delivered meals can keep persons age 60 and older at home, allowing them to age in place.  The study’s data also indicated that some states would experience cost savings if they expanded meals on wheels because that could delay a Medicaid recipient’s entry into costly nursing home care.

The “More Than a Meal” pilot research study, conducted by Thomas, was released on March 2, 2015 the Alexandria, Virginia-based Meals on Wheels America, the oldest and largest national group representing over 5,000 community-based senior nutrition programs. The gerontologist found benefits far beyond basic nutrition identified by her earlier 2013 study — health and psychological benefits, too, particularly for those seniors who live alone.

Details of Groundbreaking Research Study

Thomas, contracted by Meals on Wheels America with funding provided by AARP Foundation, designed and executed the 15-week pilot study, involving over 600 older participants, in eight sites around the country, including the Ocean State.  Study participants either received personally delivered fresh meals daily, or weekly bulk deliveries of frozen meals, or just simply remained on a waiting list.

The Brown University researcher found those living alone who received meals showed statistically significant reductions in feelings of isolation, an effect that was greater if they received meals daily rather than weekly.  They also felt significantly less lonely, were less worried about staying in their homes, and said they felt safer. Those also receiving meals experienced fewer falls and hospitalizations.

Thomas said that based on her personal experience as a driver for Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island and as the family member of a meals recipient (her 98-year old grandmother), she was not at all surprised to see the positive benefits she observed anecdotally emerge as significant in a rigorous research study.

Elle Hollander, President and CEO on Wheels America, notes that her members have “faced tough choices forced by limited funding, rising costs, unprecedented demand and need, and increasingly for-profit competition.”  Hollander says, “We now have the research-backed evidence that confirms what we’ve all know for decades anecdotally through personal experience: that Meals on Wheels does in fact deliver so much more than just a meal.”

AARP State Director Kathleen Connell agrees.  “It really has been no secret that home-delivered meals are a critical for the older population, as well as the disabled. With  Kali Thomas’s earlier Brown data released in 2012 in our award-winning senior hunger documentary Hungry in the West End, the newest research reinforces what Thomas said in film: the nutritional benefits and relief from food preparation allows people to live in their homes longer and to stay healthier. And so, there are long term healthcare benefits as well as savings to the state if the investment in home-delivered meals delays someone’s transition from independence or home-based care into a Medicaid-supported nursing facility.”

A Call for More State Funding

Heather Amaral, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island agrees with the benefits of visiting volunteers to the recipients, but stressing that the volunteer benefits, too, from the bond that develops. “There are many studies that show volunteering is good for your health and spirit, she says.

Amaral expresses pride that Rhode Island was selected as one of eight pilot sites in the study.  “This study proves what we’ve observed through the years—Meals on Wheels deliveries keeps people out of nursing homes and in their own homes longer,” she says.

According to Amaral, in 2014 Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island’s Home Delivered Meals program provided 316,524 meals to 2,298 individuals.  Over the years she has seen federal funding remain stagnant, while state funding has declined.  Last year’s budget allocated $200,000 to Meals on Wheels, down from $530,000 that was allocated by the General Assembly in 2006.   But, Governor Raimondo’s submitted budget does reinstate $ 330,000 more in funding, if approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly, she says.

Clearly, Governor Gina Raimondo recognizes the importance of Meals on Wheels as she begins to reshape Rhode Island’s long-term care continuum.  The Governor states, “Programs like Meals on Wheels are important investments. These programs are one of the strategies in our toolbox to keep people healthy and in their own homes. Particularly as we work to reinvent Medicaid to support better health outcomes and provide better value to taxpayers, we will continue to support programs like Meals on Wheels that help our most vulnerable seniors stay in their homes and in the community.”

The Rhode Island General Assembly must not be penny-wise and pound foolish.  Support the Governor’s budget to ratchet up funding for Meals on Wheels.  It is a sound policy move to put the breaks to spiraling Medicaid costs, by making the system more efficient and rooting out fraud and waste.   We must balance the State’s limited budget funds to keep older Rhode Islanders at home as long as possible.  But, if nursing home care is need, the Rhode Island General Assembly must allocate the necessary Medicaid funding to provide efficiently delivered quality of care.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.