EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was recently published in the Dothan Eagle’s Wiregrass Pride 2019 edition. It’s now being shared on a variety of our digital and social media platforms.
ENTERPRISE – Linda Uithoven pushes Daisy, Maggie and Chloe in a stroller down the halls at Enterprise Health & Rehabilitation Center.
The retired school teacher and her Yorkies are on a mission, to “interact with the residents to bring them some joy.”
Some seniors feel lonely and isolated as they age. Pets, even in a limited role, can provide some of the companionship they desire.
Liz Woodard, a community service representative with Wiregrass Area Home Instead Senior Care, said ownership is not necessary for older adults to reap the benefits of interacting with animals.
“Something like what Linda’s doing and other pet therapy programs, or even just going and visiting a family member or a neighbor that has a dog, there are plenty of ways to interact with pets even if you don’t own them,” Woodard said.
Uithoven and her Yorkshire Terriers visit assisted living facilities, schools and other places.
Daisy is the momma’s girl. “She’s not quite as loving and responsive,” Uithoven said. “She was my mother’s dog.”
Maggie is the veteran. “She’s taught the other girls,” Uithoven said.
On one visit, they came upon a woman on the Alzheimer’s hall who was crying. The certified nursing assistants were trying to calm her when Maggie jumped in her lap.
Uithoven said the woman didn’t cry the rest of the day.
Spending time with pets can help combat feelings of loneliness.
“When mother was here, I noticed a lot of people had nobody to be able to talk to and visit,” Uithoven said. That’s what started her bringing the dogs.
She said spending time with the senior residents helps her as much as it does them.
“When I see somebody that is really down and really lonely and they respond so positively, it did more for me than what I can do for anybody up here,” Uithoven said.
Danny Bradley, one of the residents, knows the Yorkies so well that they sit with him on Sunday when church is held in the main dining room.
“They benefit us a lot because we don’t usually see animals that much and they’re very, very gentle,” he said. “They’re just wonderful.”
The center is so big that Uithoven can’t visit everybody. The ones who do see the toy-sized terriers enjoy petting, holding and talking to them.
“They can bring so much warmth and love without doing a thing,” she said.
One woman at the center who is 100 years old came looking for the dogs when they were visiting.
“She doesn’t go anywhere out of her room except to go maybe get a refill on coffee, and she came today,” Uithoven said. “She said, ‘ Y ou know I wouldn’t do this for people.’ She wanted to see the dogs.”
Woodard said for seniors who keep animals at home, a pet can be a source of happiness.
“One of my clients is a double amputee,” she said. “He has a dog named Jake. Every time Jake runs up in the room, he hops in his lap and his face lights up.”
Lan Berry, a senior care expert and owner of the Home Instead Senior Care in Dothan, said a simple act like petting a dog, holding a cat or watching a bird can bring so much joy to a senior who may be feeling lonely.
Results from a recent Home Instead survey found that nearly half of older pet owners cited stress relief, sense of purpose and exercise as leading benefits to owning a pet. Pets can also provide loving companionship for older adults who would prefer to age in place.
Home Instead is offering free information and tips on how seniors can incorporate animals into their lives. To learn more, visit www.petsandseniors.com or contact your local Home Instead Senior Care office.
Steve Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization, said there is a strong connection between heart health and pet ownership or interaction.
“Pet owners are more likely to get recommended levels of exercise, have lower blood pressure and experience reduced levels of stress,” he said. “Pets have even been shown to aid in recovery after a heart attack.”
Survey results indicate that older adults achieve the same positive feelings when spending time with animals in other capacities, such as visiting with pets owned by family, friends or neighbors.
“This interaction is especially important, as it also provides the opportunity to socialize with other people, further reducing feelings of loneliness,” Berry said. “Our goal is to keep seniors safe and happy in their own homes for as long as possible and many times that includes helping them with their own pet, taking them to dog parks or visiting pet-friendly businesses to gain that animal interaction they desire.”