A new study has discovered that pets can reduce feelings of depression and loneliness in older adults after divorce or a spouse dies.

Now, at first glance, this might not sound like groundbreaking stuff to pet owners who know the many benefits of being a pet parent, but the findings could lead to something very interesting for older people, such as grandparents, at a time when loneliness is much talked about, so let’s explore the study.

The study, led by Florida State University researchers, examined depressive symptoms and loneliness among people aged 50 and older who experienced the loss of a spouse through death or divorce.

Dawn Carr, lead author and FSU associate professor of sociology said:

“Increasingly, there’s evidence that our social support networks are really beneficial for maintaining our mental health following stressful events, despite the devastation we experience in later life when we experience major social losses.”

She continued, “I was interested in understanding alternatives to human networks for buffering the psychological consequences of spousal loss.”

The study unfolded

Researchers compared the data of older adults who participated in an experimental survey about human animal interaction as part of the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study in 2012. They then linked the data with additional data collected between 2008 and 2014.

The researchers explored whether the effects of spousal loss differed for those who had a pet at the time of the death or divorce.

They found all individuals who lost their spouse experienced higher levels of depression, but non-pet owners experienced more significant increases in depressive symptoms and higher loneliness than pet owners.

Instead, researchers discovered that people who own pets (a dog or cat) and had experienced the death of a spouse or had gotten divorced were no lonelier than older adults who didn’t experience one of those events.

On this point, Carr said this was an important and impressive finding to note.

“Experiencing some depression after a loss is normal, but we usually are able to adjust over time to these losses. Persistent loneliness, on the other hand, is associated with greater incidents of mortality and faster onset of disability, which means it’s especially bad for your health. Our findings suggest that pets could help individuals avoid the negative consequences of loneliness after a loss.

“In everyday life, having a cat or dog may not make you healthier, but when facing a stressful event, we might lean on a pet for support. You can talk to your dog. They’re not going to tell you you’re a bad person, they’re just going to love you. Or you can pet your cat, and it’s calming.”

What the study tells us

Researchers behind this study believe pets may make these particular stressful life events more bearable because people feel like they still matter to someone else.

“Oftentimes, the relationship we have with our spouse is our most intimate, where our sense of self is really embedded in that relationship,” Carr said. “So, losing that sense of purpose and meaning in our lives that comes from that relationship can be really devastating. A pet might help offset some of those feelings. It makes sense to think, ‘Well at least this pet still needs me. I can take care of it. I can love it and it appreciates me.’ That ability to give back and give love is really pretty powerful.”

So, what does this mean?

Well, it could give residential homes pause for thought on social policies around companion animals being able to move with their owners into residential accommodation and retirement homes. This could dramatically ease loneliness.

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