May 24, 1996
"Denying older adults the right to own a pet is part of the whole pattern of injustice foisted on them," said Professor Alan M. Beck, an authority on the bond between people and animals. "We owe it to the elderly to develop laws and guidelines that will prolong their days and improve the quality of their daily lives."
Although various studies have built support for protecting the right of pet ownership among older adults, Beck said, urban areas in particular have a long history of laws and traditions that prohibit animals. For example, landlords often prohibit renters from having a pet or charge a prohibitive security deposit and extra rent per month to allow pets, Beck said.
"These regulations often directly conflict with animal ownership for older people," Beck said. "It's time to start basic planning to improve the lives of older people by improving their ability to enjoy animal companionship."
Beck is director of Purdue's Center for Applied Ethology and Human-Animal Interaction. Ethology is the study of animals in their natural environment. He also is co-author of the book "Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship." His comments about the elderly and animals were based on his own studies and those of other researchers.
Many nursing homes have come to realize the value of pet companionship. The first pet-visiting programs used animals from local humane societies, Beck said. The trend now is to recruit private volunteers who bring their own pets to the homes.
"There's also a growing interest among institutions to maintain their own animals to enhance the therapy program," Beck said.
For example, nursing homes can keep small pets such as fish and birds. Those animals can provide the same therapeutic effects as dogs and cats, but fit into the living situation more easily.
Cats and dogs, however, can be accommodated in nursing homes, Beck said. Dogs should be well-trained, housebroken and free of internal and external parasites. Cats should be litter-trained and declawed. Both species should be neutered or spayed, have current vaccinations and be kept away from areas of food preparation and medical, linen or utensil storage.
"It's absolutely essential to have specific staff members responsible for the care of any animals on the premises," Beck said. "A veterinarian should examine the animals routinely and be on call. Also, the rights of residents who prefer not to have contact with animals must be protected."
Because less than 5 percent of the elderly live in institutional settings at any one time, housing developments that let older people have contact with animals need to be planned as well, Beck said.
"Housing facilities for the elderly should provide areas where dogs can be walked without posing a special burden to the owner or the neighborhood," Beck said. "Planning for companion animals should be as much a part of environmental design as anticipating wheelchair ramps and proper lighting."
Laws and regulations have reflected a prejudice against older people owning animals, Beck said. "Yet, these owners are a small percent of the total animal-owning population, and actually seem more likely than younger or middle-aged people to obey leash and canine-waste laws," he said.
Animal-owning older adults -- especially those who own dogs -- appear to experience less stress and require fewer visits to their physicians than nonowners, Beck said. Citing a 1990 study by UCLA'S Judith Siegel of 1,000 non-institutionalized elderly Medicare patients, Beck said those who owned pets visited their doctor less often than did non-owners.
Animals can give many of the benefits of human contact, Beck said: They can stimulate talk and exercise, and they can encourage touching and caring and laughter and social contact.
"In part, pets are moderators for life's stresses," Beck said. "Most of the people in Dr. Siegel's study said the pets gave them companionship, a sense of security, and the opportunity for fun and play.
"Animal companionship is one way people can be protected from the ravages of loneliness. Animals can permit the elderly person to be alone, but without being lonely."
Source: Alan Beck, (765) 494-0854; home, (765) 463-497-7881; Internet, email@example.com
Writer: Ellen Rantz, (765) 494-2073; home, (765) 497-0345; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
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