older female adult hugging dog

Love Furry Friends: Pets and Assisted Living – A World of Options

In recognition of Valentine’s Day this month, we dedicate this post to all who have love to share with animals.

One tip for health and long life: adopt a pet. People who share their homes with animals have less depression, fewer cardiac problems, lower physical-pain rates, and higher rates of regular physical activity—to name just a few benefits. For people with disabilities, a pet can also mitigate the effects of dementia, or provide incentive to stick with physical therapy (just try petting a cat without exercising your arms!).

Still, there may come a day when you or a loved one can no longer manage independent living. When it’s time to find a new residence with an active senior community, 24/7 caretaking, or anything in between, the question often looms: will I have to live out the rest of my days without animal companionship?

Good news: you probably won’t.

older adult man giving a high five to his dog

Can I Bring My Own Pets?

If you depend on a service dog (which may double as a pet during its off-work hours), you can take it wherever you go. If your pet is a certified Emotional Support Animal, it’s exempt from most regulations limiting pet ownership. But what if you have an “ordinary” pet you can’t imagine giving up?

Don’t let anyone tell you “pets aren’t allowed in assisted living” as though it were a universal rule with no exceptions. Even places in the “nursing home” category, where caretakers work around the clock and many residents have severe disabilities, often will make reasonable accommodations to keep pets and owners together.

Every place has its own rules, so do your research before it’s time to sign the lease. It’s rarely enough just to know that pets are allowed. Other possible questions:

  • Are facilities such as dog runs available?
  • Are there restrictions on breeds, species, sizes, and/or animal health conditions?
  • Is it permissible to keep more than one animal per unit? (Some places limit the total number of animals for the whole community.)
  • Have there been problems with residents complaining about other residents’ pets? (Even if your pet is officially allowed, you may want to look elsewhere if several neighbors hate dogs or have severe allergies.)
  • Are there restrictions on acquiring new pets after moving in?
  • Am I required to designate an “alternate owner” who will take the pet if I become incapable of caring for it? (A good idea in any case.)

Consider also how your pet may react to the move. If your dog was used to having full run of a yard, you may have to train him not to howl to go out, especially when neighbors are napping on the other side of your wall.

“Shared Pets”

Whether or not you have your own pets, it also pays to check on other animal-interaction opportunities. Some questions you may want to ask:

  • Are there any “communal animals” that live onsite? What type(s) of animals are they: fish in aquariums, birds in an aviary, furry creatures with the run of certain areas?
  • Are there outings to dog parks, wildlife centers, animal shelters, etc.?
  • What formal pet-therapy programs (animals brought regularly to visit residents) are available?
  • What animals/species are involved in pet-therapy visits? (Dogs are the most common, but many programs include cats, rabbits, pigs, or even animals from wildlife-rehab programs. Also, programs differ in whether they bring the same individual animals each time.)
  • Is pet therapy limited to large-group events, or do animals visit residents in their rooms?

Almost as Good as the Real Thing

And if someone has disabilities that make them physically or mentally incapable of dealing with a living creature? Assistive technology provides yet another option.

If you’ve ever raised children, you know how attached they get to stuffed animals, dolls, even interactive robots—toys that, for all their manufactured nature, have a “companionship” vibe not shared by purely utilitarian objects. The same principle underlies a new generation of “robopets”: mechanical animals that look amazingly like living ones and can be called, talked to, and cuddled.

One robopet option, recommended by the Texas Technology Access Program, is Joy for All, a line of animatronic animals that respond to human touch, make lifelike sounds, and even have simulated heartbeats. Maybe they aren’t quite as responsive as flesh-and-blood pets, but they don’t make messes or inflict accidental scratches, either; and there’s evidence that robopets provide many of the same emotional and physical health benefits as living animals.

Whatever your options, do what you can to keep animals a regular part of your life. They really are part of the formula for living longer and healthier!

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