If you’ve visited one of our PACE Centers in California, Colorado or New Mexico, you’ve probably seen a furry friend roaming the halls greeting participants in their path. This is likely one of our service animals or therapy dogs.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that animals (service, therapy or companionship) have been known to provide physical and mental health benefits to those around them. Studies show animal companionship can greatly affect the quality of our lives. Below are some of the theorized advantages:
Physical Health Benefits
Lower blood pressure
Regulated heart rate
Lower risk of heart disease
Lower levels of stress
Fewer doctor visits
Fewer sick days off from work
Mental Health Benefits
Sense of responsibility
Lower rates of depression
Increased participation in social and physical activities
Service vs. therapy vs. companionship
Service animals must be individually trained to perform tasks related to a participant’s disabilities while therapy animals belong to a therapist or psychiatric personnel and must be accompanied by them at all times.
Service animals are trained to behave flawlessly in public and will even tuck themselves under tables so as not to be an inconvenience to those around them. Therapy animals often provide comfort and companionship to others by listening to them read or accompanying them during appointments.
Companionship animals are virtually indistinguishable from the family pet and may not behave perfectly in public. For this reason, companionship animals are not allowed in most public places and must remain at home.
The holidays are a great time to visit with relatives and family members, some of whom we may not see on a regular basis. Visiting with older loved ones this holiday season offers a unique opportunity to assess their wellbeing.
InnovAge, which provides health services for aging adults, provides the following holiday wellness checklist to keep in mind during your next visit.
Check if they’ve received flu, pneumonia and shingles vaccinations
Older adults are especially susceptible to the flu, pneumonia and shingles. Getting vaccinated is a quick and inexpensive way to prevent these illnesses, which are particularly dangerous to older adults. People 60 years or older should receive a shingles vaccine to reduce the risk of developing the skin rash and the long-term pain that can follow.
Monitor emotional well-being
Take note of signs of isolation and depression, including withdrawal from activities with others, loss of interest in hobbies, sleep patterns and lack of home maintenance and personal hygiene. The latter can also be a sign of dementia or other serious aliments including dehydration–a serious condition sometimes overlooked in seniors during the winter months.
Make sure the living environment is safe
For seniors aging in place, it’s important to ensure their homes provide a safe environment. Check for potential problem areas including dimmed lighting, unsafe clutter, unopened mail, and old or expired food in the fridge.
While decorating for the holidays is a joyous tradition for many, it’s important to be on the lookout for hazards that could pose a risk. Extra electrical cords on the ground, loose rugs, exposed wires or flammable materials in unsafe areas can all create safety hazards. Natural trees are beautiful, but are at risk of catching fire more easily than artificial trees. If your loved one has opted for a real tree, make sure it has green needles that do not break easily and the tree is watered regularly.
If your loved one has a furnace, schedule a winter checkup. Test all smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to ensure they work. In colder areas that are snowy and icy, have the walkways and driveways kept clear of ice and snow to avoid slips and falls.
Make a list of the medications they are taking
Make a list of all current medications they take. Provide their physician with a copy of the list and put one in your loved one’s wallet in case of emergencies. You can also check if they take their medication as directed by checking if the number of pills left in the bottle coincides with the date on the label.
Some seniors can experience depression during the holiday months, which may cause them to stop taking medications. It’s important to show support and keep lines of communication open with your loved one if you feel they may be experiencing depression or holiday blues.
Take note of their physical appearance. Do they appear healthy?
Look to see if there are any notable physical changes or declines in health. Red flags include weight loss, change in mobility, lack of balance and frequent confusion and memory loss. During family gatherings with food, check to see how much your loved one is eating. If there is a notable decrease in appetite or subsequent weight loss, it could be a sign of a more serious health issue. If red flags are apparent after visiting, discuss with your loved one and their primary care physician to determine the best plan of action.
Look for local resources for support and assistance in caring for your loved one. Use support programs such as PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly), which provide adult day services to older adults and give caregivers respite to take care of themselves.
InnovAge, a provider of health and wellness services for older adults, offers resources for seniors and their caregivers at http://MyInnovAge.org.