STYLE

Pets play an increasingly important role at senior living centres across the United States

05/15/2012 03:07 EDT | Updated 07/15/2012 05:12 EDT
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Shirlee and Nathan "Nick" Horowitz faced one serious health crisis after another before their doctor said they had to move into an assisted living centre. They had only one condition — they weren't going anywhere without their dog.

Hundreds of retirement communities across the country now allow seniors to live with their pets and more and more keep house pets that provide the benefits without the responsibility.

As many as 40 per cent of people ask about pets when calling A Place for Mom, the nation's largest senior living referral service, said Tami Cumings, its senior vice-president.

When the service was founded 12 years ago, pets were seldom considered when it came time for older people to enter rest homes or skilled nursing homes, Cumings said.

Then came the boom in independent living centres, assisted living complexes and memory centres for Alzheimer's patients. At the same time, some people have latched on to studies that show pets can help their owners' health physically and psychologically, said Lori Kogan, a professor of veterinary medicine at Colorado State University.

Shirlee Horowitz and her husband chose the Regency Grand in West Covina, about 20 miles east of Los Angeles. Meals are provided, as is housekeeping and transportation. Medication management and help with dressing and bathing can be arranged. But most of all, their collie Barney was welcome.

"I worried more about him because he had a big yard before," said Shirlee Horowitz, 77. "But he has adjusted to this better than we have."

Barney's friendliness has made it easier for the couple to meet their neighbours, and his walks have helped them get to know the complex.

Living centres usually prefer smaller pets and put the limit at two. Not all pets are dogs and cats either, Cumings said. They get a lot of calls about birds and fish, too.

As much as 30 per cent of the residents at the Regency Grand have pets at any one time, said Leah Hynes, Regency Grand's marketing associate. Seldom do the elderly move in with puppies or kittens, she said. Most of the time, their animals are older, too.

One of the residents lost her husband of many decades. She wanted a pet so Hynes helped her choose a cat. They named it Annie and had the cat spayed, vaccinated and microchipped.

"It was like bringing a new baby home. She had the apartment set up and couldn't wait to have the companionship and someone to care for again," she said.

Residents who don't have pets of their own are encouraged to share Alley, the office cat. At the centre's memory care centre, a dog, a cat and two bunnies live with a couple of parakeets and a lot of fish.

Pet-friendly living centres are still in the minority, so people who don't like animals will easily find centres that say "No Pets Allowed."

But some living centres are cultivating small menageries.

At the Silverado Senior Living centre in Encinitas, 25 miles north of San Diego, residents have miniature horses and for several months every year, a very young kangaroo, said Steve Winner, co-founder and chief of culture for the company's 23 centres in six states, including Illinois and Texas.

They've had a pot-bellied pig, chinchillas, guinea pigs and even a llama until he got too big, said Winner, who estimated that 20 per cent of their new residents move in with pets.

When it's time to walk the dogs, a staff member might play "Who Let the Dogs Out" by Baha Men as a signal that it's time to put leashes on the dogs.

Kogan founded a prototype program called Pets Forever, a Colorado State class where students earn credits while helping elderly and disabled pet owners care for their animals.

As people grow old, they lose relatives and friends, maybe some of their mobility, their jobs and homes. "So pets become increasingly important," Kogan said. The relationship between a person and a pet may be the only thing an older person has left, she said.

"Clients will often say their pets are the reason they try to continue living," she said. "These pets really give them meaning and value in life, a purpose for getting up in the morning."

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