Pet ownership has been all but synonymous with companionship, happiness, and support for years. Furry companions offer countless opportunities for engagement and emotional reassurance for animal lovers of all ages; however, given our current senior isolation epidemic, the potential benefits of caring for a pet are particularly significant for aging, lonely adults. 


Coming home to an empty house is hard. It’s a truth that many seniors today are acutely aware of; according to a recent survey for the Wall Street Journal, 8.3% of surveyed Baby Boomers reported that they “often feel lonely” on a day-to-day basis. The generation’s comparably high rates of divorce and tendency to forego marriage have left many retirees facing the prospect of entering their sunset years without the support that partners or children might have provided. 


Their isolation comes at a multifaceted cost for both seniors and society as a whole. Researchers have found that loneliness is just as much of a health risk factor as smoking, alcohol intake, and obesity. One meta-analytical review from Brigham Young University found that seniors with few social relationships were 50% more likely to die early than those with the support of a robust interpersonal network. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the loneliness epidemic and its associated impact on senior population health poses a high financial cost to individuals and their communities. In 2017, researchers from Harvard, Stanford, and the AARP reported that the increased health risks and care needs posed by a lack of social contacts among Boomers could be contributing as much as $6.7 billion to Medicare spending every year. 


The loneliness epidemic is a serious social concern, and one that will require time, effort, and resources to solve. However, even small measures — like taking in a pet — could make a considerable difference for retirees who feel worn down by social isolation. In the long view, encouraging a higher trend of pet ownership could have a significant positive impact on senior population health and empower older Americans to live longer, healthier, and more socially-connected lives. 


Pet Ownership Can Improve Senior Population Health


Pet ownership has a number of associated wellness benefits, with the most intuitive being companionship. Conventional knowledge holds that pets offer day-to-day companionship, lessen the mental drain of coming home to an empty house, and ward off the emotional impact of social isolation. These assumptions have backing in scientific research; one meta-analysis published in a 2017 issue of Frontiers in Psychology reported that older adults who have a high attachment to their pets tend to experience less loneliness. Pet ownership has also been found to mitigate the established link between loneliness and poor general health for older women. 


Moreover, because pets require regular meals, care, and exercise, seniors who provide that maintenance are more likely to take care of themselves in those respects, as well. In a 2016 report, researchers from the University of Missouri Health reported a link between dog walking and “lower body mass index, fewer doctor visits, more frequent exercise and an increase in social benefits for seniors.” Seniors who frequently walk their dogs are also more likely to enjoy a high sense of community and social support


How Could Technology Help Optimize The Social Benefits of Pet Ownership? 


Currently, the isolation-breaking benefits of pet ownership are mostly unstructured; they occur when seniors take their dogs out on a walk and happen to engage with other older adults while on their way. However, in the future, technology could encourage seniors to participate in pet-centered communities and optimize both the social- and health benefits of pet ownership. 


Consider Whistle, an app that not only allows owners to track their pet but also monitors health indicators (scratching, sleeping, eating behaviors, etc.) and empowers owners to set fitness goals for their animal companion. In its current form, the app creates a kind of social, gamified community around pets and pet activity, thereby encouraging seniors to engage in healthy exercise and meet other pet owners. Future iterations of Whistle’s design may take this positive encouragement a step further by linking an animal’s fitness goals to their human’s FitBit or Apple Health Tech. This addition could provide a means of encouraging seniors to maintain a regular practice of healthy behavior with their pet. 


Pet companionship will not solve all of the problems inherent to the senior isolation epidemic, but it will go a long way towards encouraging healthy behaviors and improving population wellness. That alone suggests that we need to promote pet adoption and pet-centered activities among seniors — for the good of our communities as well as for the seniors themselves.