Guest post by Lisa Lunghofer, Ph.D.
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”
People aren’t the only ones living longer. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s website explains, “Due to improved veterinary care and dietary habits, pets are living longer now than they ever have before.” Dogs in particular are enjoying increased longevity, though not all are lucky enough to find themselves in loving homes in their senior years.
Last summer I was named Executive Director of The Grey Muzzle Organization. I have had many different jobs during the course of my career, but never have I worked for an organization with a vision that made me choke up each time I try to say it out loud: We envision a world where no old dog dies alone and afraid. I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to lead an organization dedicated to the beautiful and noble mission of helping homeless senior dogs. With one senior dog curled up in her bed under my desk and another lounging on the couch, this cause is near to my heart.
The old dogs that share our hearts and homes are part of our family. Sadly, many old dogs are not that fortunate. Senior dogs slow down. They develop medical issues. And many find themselves alone, afraid, and at-risk in shelters across the United States.
The need for programs to help older dogs and the people who love them has never been greater. BJ, a Shih Tzu from Knoxville, Tennessee, is a perfect example. Ten-year-old BJ had a skin condition that required daily medication. The condition also required that BJ receive regular clippings to keep his fur short. Michael, a senior himself and BJ’s person, could not afford to have BJ groomed regularly and struggled with the thought that he might need to give him up.
BJ was at risk of being one of those unfortunate dogs who find themselves alone and afraid in a shelter, and Michael was at risk of losing his best friend.
The Grey Muzzle Organization creates happy endings to heartbreaking stories like this one–on a national scale. Similar to the International Federation on Ageing’s work to improve the lives of older people, Grey Muzzle works to improve the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing grants and other resources to animal welfare organizations nationwide.
Grey Muzzle funding and resources support medical and dental care, in-home hospice services, beds for old dogs at shelters, and education programs to encourage adoption and quality care of senior dogs. Recognizing the importance of the human-animal bond to older adults, we also support Seniors for Seniors programs, which encourage senior people to adopt senior dogs and help older people keep their beloved pets by providing food, medical care, and other support such as assistance with grooming.
Thanks to a grant from Grey Muzzle to Knox PAWS (Placing Animals With Seniors), BJ received monthly grooming at no cost to Michael. Knox PAWS, which is offered by the Office on Aging in Knox County, Tennessee, works with animal shelters to match senior pets with senior citizens and provides resources to seniors like Michael. Misty Goodwin, Senior Manager of Knox PAWS, explains, “Our agency has seen firsthand how difficult it is for seniors, many of whom are on fixed incomes, to provide care to their aging pets. We receive calls regularly from seniors who love their pets but feel they need to surrender them because they simply do not have the financial means to care for them. We want to carry out Grey Muzzle’s mission and keep older pets and people together.”
Consistent with the Office on Aging’s mandate to meet the needs of older citizens in Knox County, Knox PAWS improves the well-being of both senior adults and dogs. The program is intended to reduce loneliness and stress as well as improve the physical and mental health of seniors, while at the same time keeping senior dogs out of shelters. Goodwin sums up her agency’s mission, saying, “We provide care and comfort for old dogs and the seniors who love them.”
Lisa Lunghofer, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of The Grey Muzzle Organization.
Guest post by Dr. Jill M. Bjerke.
I thought I had heard of everything, but Laughter University? Seriously? Yes, it is real. The full title is Laughter Online University, and it is a fascinating website. I have never doubted the contribution laughter makes to our psychological well-being, but this site puts a lot of the reasons this is true into wonderful perspective. Through the use of “Laughter Wellness” and “Laughter Yoga,” the true mind-body connection is explored – and exercised – with incredibly positive effects on an individual’s physical and psychological wellbeing.
Their website states:
When you laugh, all your body systems are affected in a positive manner. It is particularly important for seniors as well as bedridden or wheelchair-bound people. A big stressor for seniors is a feeling of being useless after retirement. It can lead to major depression and mental agony. Lack of importance creates frustration and, many times, proves extremely detrimental to physical and mental health. Laughter helps to reduce stress and generate a positive attitude. Laughing together in a group also helps to boost self-esteem and overcome feelings of insecurity.
But taking this a step further, laughter can have an incredibly positive effect on human physiology as well. A 2014 study by researchers at Loma Linda University in California dared to explore whether or not humor can affect short-term memory in older adults. It is a known fact that laughter can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which can impair an individual’s ability to learn and retain information. The study stated that the primary goals was to determine whether or not watching a humorous video had any effect on short-term memory in older adults. The results clearly showed that learning ability and memory (“delayed recall”) were significantly improved.
Similarly, a 2009 study by the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore which, at the time, was the first to indicate that laughter may help prevent heart disease. Those results revealed that people with heart disease were 40 per cent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease.
So now that we have “proof” that laughter is indeed the best medicine, as the saying goes, how do we incorporate or introduce this into our lives? For some, it is not as easy as it sounds, so here are some suggestions from Dr. Shagufta Feroz:
Your assignment today is find humor in your life on a daily basis, if not more often. Laughter is universal. It is contagious. It can defuse situations. I remember well a few months ago when I was caring for my sister, who was near the end of a fight with terminal pancreatic cancer. She had miraculously survived five years. She answered a phone call from a friend by saying, “I’m dying, but other than that I’m okay.” She was completely serious. I had to leave the room because the oxymoron made me giggle. But I now can look back at that with humor, as it helped me get through a very difficult time. Humor does have its place in righting our world when it seems out of balance or tilted. So go ahead! Laugh to your heart’s content!
Guest post by Dr. Jill M. Bjerke.
Yes, what goes around comes around. The child we once parented has now taken on the role of a parent to us with a complete role reversal. While it may seem that the greater percentage of seniors live alone, the fact is that many have now taken the step to move under one roof with family members.
Pew Research states, “Between 1900 and 1990, the share of adults ages 65 and older living alone increased nearly fivefold, from 6% to 29%. This growth was spurred by a host of factors, including improved health and longevity among older Americans and the economic security that came with social safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare.”
But since 1990 in the U.S. this same population turned away from living alone, often out of necessity sparked primarily by failing health and dwindling finances. More and more seniors are moving in to live with their children. The child steps into the role of parent where looking after senior family members is concerned.
This is an issue not faced by the U.S. alone as the effect of the housing and care situation for older adults is an international problem as well. How the global community addresses these problems is highly varied and many countries have recognized the growing need to protect the rights and lives of seniors in the course of solving the aging population crisis.
China passed an “Elderly Rights Law” mandating visits to parents by adult children or family, with fines – or even jail time – as punishment for neglect or failure to check up on older persons. Eastern cultures like China value the family as a unit, but the country’s rapid industrialization has forced many adult children to move farther away from their parents, which complicates things greatly.
Korea celebrates the elderly with roles that completely reverse once parents age, and in this culture, caring for parents is an honorable duty.
Although the Japanese also treasure the family, the rapid increase in elderly population is set to put a strain on adult children and is leading to a whole host of new problems. More than a quarter of Japan’s population is over 65. This is set to increase to 40% by 2055. But Japan does not have the younger population to care for this increase in the ageing demographic.
Western cultures like the U.S. and the U.K. are youth-centric, which diminishes awareness of the burgeoning senior population and the consequences of that shift. In both countries, retirement communities and assisted living facilities have burst onto the housing scene to address some of these issues.
France passed a law in 2004 requiring adult children to provide for aging parents who are incapable of caring for themselves. The law stipulates that adult children have a legal obligation to pay their parents an “allowance” or provide or fund a home for them. Violators can face fines or prison.
In Mediterranean and Latin cultures, it is common for multiple generations to live together, sharing not only the home, but responsibilities as well. The older family members are relied on to care for the youngest and the elders become integrated into family life right up to end.
But there are definite downsides that may go unrecognized by those wanting to remain alone in their homes. Those who live by themselves often feel more financially disadvantaged and social isolation can become a serious physical and mental health concern. And this seclusion can equate to less time spent with family and may make seniors hesitant to ask for help or guidance from their children. Living alone can mean less interaction with extended family members like grandchildren as well, which is a loss of generational experiences for all.
But for most adults, moving in with children or other family members brings its own stressors, like loss of privacy or confusion about how to contribute to household expenses. Jane Bryant Quinn, in an article for AARP, succinctly states what may not be obvious at first glance when contemplating this move:
Consider meals, chores, TV use, daytime appointments, religious services, music, pets and social activities (yours and your family’s). How much do you want to help and what will your child expect? Can you drive or will you need to be driven? Will you go on family vacations? Do you think your grandchildren aren’t being raised well? (Warning! Think about whether or not you can hold your peace.)
Around the world, how seniors and their families find solutions to the needs that an aging population brings with it has become a universal conundrum. Perhaps if we would, on a global basis, make more of an effort share the inroads and gains made in the struggle to provide the highest quality of life for people as they age, we would all benefit greatly. Aging is, after all, universal.
“The future has arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
– William Gibson
Stepler, Renee. “Smaller Share of Women Ages 65 and Older Are Living Alone.” Pew Research Center. Presocialtrends.org. 18 February 2016. Web. 17 August 2016.
Family Support in Graying Societies.” 21 May 2015.
Quinn, Jane Bryant. “When Parents Move In With Kids.” AARP. 6 September 2012. Web. 15 August 2015.