CHICAGO — Shirley Skirvin's retirement community has its share of grumblings about aches and pains. But Skirvin, 78, who lives with her husband, Sid, in an independent living facility, has found a reliable if unintentional way to coax her neighbors out of their gloom: walking the grounds with her 6-pound toy poodle, Spunky.
"Dogs keep you from being so self-absorbed," said Skirvin, who brought Spunky with her when she moved into Village at Skyline in Colorado Springs, Colo., almost three years ago. "They remind you constantly of other qualities of life."
As pets prove to lift the spirits and, some research shows, health prospects of elderly people, many senior living facilities are making it a point to incorporate pets into seniors' lives, either through pet visits, having animals as permanent residents or allowing seniors to bring their own.
The number of senior living communities that permit residents to bring their pets has increased substantially in the past five to 10 years as more families request it, said Tami Cumings, senior vice president at A Place for Mom, the nation's largest senior-living referral service.
With about 40 percent of adult children inquiring about pet-friendly homes for their parents, the agency has compiled a guide to pet-friendly senior communities that its advisers use when placing clients. About half of the 18,000 programs in the agency's network are pet-friendly.
"Many times we talk to families that have had a loss of a spouse, and they say, 'I can't take the dog away,'" Cumings said.
While dogs are most common, many different types of animals bring cheer to senior communities. At Pet Partners, a Bellevue, Wash.-based nonprofit agency that trains and screens volunteers to take their pets on visits to senior centers, hospitals and schools, registered animals include birds, llamas, chickens, guinea pigs and miniature horses.
A 2002 study found having fish tanks in Alzheimer's units, where patients spent long stretches pacing and suffered weight loss, improved residents' food intake and encouraged modest weight gain.
"Nothing holds their attention except fish tanks," said study author Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "I think our attraction to nature even survives our dementia."
Even robotic animals, an alternative in places where having a live animal might be too difficult or risky, can elicit positive responses from the elderly. A Canadian study of dementia patients interacting with Paro, a cute robotic baby harp seal, found many showed improved mood. Beck is in the midst of a study of how healthy elderly adults interact with a robotic dog called Aibo, and has found they talk to and confide in it as if it were a live dog — even though it's hard and looks like a machine.
"You're already suspending disbelief when you talk to your real dog; you're just going one step more when you talk to the electronic animal," Beck said.
The reasons for pets' palliative powers are varied. Touching, petting, even the way people talk to a pet are calming influences (for the pet as well as the human), Beck said. In the case of dogs, people are encouraged to walk. And pets demand attention.
"Pet care is one of the few opportunities for people to be a nurturer again," Beck said.
Research dating back several decades has shown that being around animals reduces blood pressure, improves morale and relieves depression. One landmark study, published in 1980, found people who had had heart attacks were more likely to still be alive a year later if they owned pets than if they didn't. Another, published in 1990, found elderly Medicare enrollees who owned dogs went to the doctor less often than those who did not, and were less likely to reach out to a doctor after a stressful life event.
Pets can provide comfort and companionship to a population at high risk of social deprivation, sometimes more than people can. In a 2006 study, geriatricians from Saint Louis University found nursing home residents who scored high on a loneliness scale felt less lonely when they spent one-on-one time with a visiting dog than if they visited with the dog and their peers.
When Jeanine Young was seeking an assisted living facility for her 94-year-old uncle, Merritt Ziolkowski, a big reason she chose Sunrise Senior Living in Schaumburg, Ill., outside Chicago, was the friendly golden retriever, Molly.
"I think it made him feel more at home" during the difficult transition, said Young, who lives in Frederick, Md. He had an instant friend and "something to talk about," she said.