Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: June 28, 2023 by Crystal Uys

old man holding cat

Written by Ingrid R. Niesman, MS PhD 

A 101-year-old senior citizen adopts a 19-year old cat from the Catawba Humane Society in Hickory, NC. Penny’s family describes this as a match made in heaven. After losing her cat and realizing a stuffed animal is not an alternative, the North Carolina woman has found her senior soul mate in Gus. Her story is a reminder of the importance of cats in all our lives, but particularly for the elderly.

A tragic result of the COVID-19 pandemic is an increasingly isolated elderly population. With our lengthened life expectancy, combined with high rates of divorce, widely dispersed families and spousal deaths, the current population of 60 and older adults living alone will continue expanding. This article explores current scientific research on the value of cats as companions for enhancing the quality of life for older adults.

Cats may be a relationship substitute for socially isolated older adults

Research studies supporting pet ownership and mental health benefits for older adults are sadly lacking, especially for cats. Those of us who already experience the joy of feline companionship will likely continue to maintain these relationships as we age. The studies benefit older adults living alone or in elderly communal residences without companion cats.

To test the suggestion that any pet may buffer the detrimental effects of social isolation, a group at Florida State University has recently published data demonstrating that parenting companion animals, mainly cats and dogs, decreases the loneliness experienced by the elderly following loss of spouse or partner. The study was based on a large data set from the Health and Retirement Study. “We were interested in understanding if pets can be a pathway for promoting a thriving aging life,” explains Dawn Carr, PhD, lead author on the study. “Our evidence suggests that cats can be a replacement for the social engagement lost when adults begin living alone.”

Older adults in general are at risk for lowered quality of life. We already know the human-pet bond is beneficial in providing increased physical and mental stability. Yet, one recent study from Germany surveyed an older population of adults without a partner and found that 82% did not own a pet. Only 12% owned cats and even fewer owned dogs. Are we missing an important therapeutic tool for mitigating the social isolation, depressive psychology and lack of physical activity that our elderly individuals experience?

A 2020 study from Australia, published in Aging and Mental Health, addresses these issues directly. These authors used interviews to ascertain how owners believed their pets gave them a sense of purpose, meaningful daily lives and resiliency. In all categories surveyed, pets provided positive mental health outcomes. This association was so strong that, when questioned if other older adults should become pet parents, they unanimously agreed.

Happy senior woman with cat resting in bed at home.
Image Credit: Group Pictures, Shutterstock

Creating Cat-Friendly Public Policy

Caring for a cat is an investment. Veterinary care and cat food can be costly. Litter boxes need changing. Making arrangements for permanent care after death is a looming concern. A Meals-on-Wheels type program could increase cat accessibility for homebound seniors. “These programs are a great tool to address social isolation,” suggests Dawn Carr. The food delivered is helpful, but the daily contact with the driver is the true benefit. A similar program could bring a cat to your doorstep for daily snuggles, or provide food, clean bowls and disposable litter boxes for in home cats, easing the burden for the elderly caregiver.

Let’s all give a hand to Penny and Gus. They may be the true trailblazers for our future.

Ingrid R. Niesman MS PhD is the Director of the SDSU Electron Microscope Imaging Facility at San Diego State University. She graduated from Utah State University and received her MS from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. After 30 years of technical electron microscopy, cell biology, neuroscience and infectious disease research, Dr. Niesman completed her PhD in the UK at the University of Sunderland. Her work experience includes time at LSU Medical School, Washington University, UAMS in Little Rock, UCSD, TSRI and a postdoctoral year at CALIBR in La Jolla, CA. She has worked for at least two National Academy of Science members and is credited with over 50 publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

Featured Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

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