Researchers have surveyed a group of 35 senior people who were pet owners and said they were “actively suicidal,” but their animal companions gave them a reason to live.
Janette Young, lead author and lecturer from the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia, said it is important to understand that each individual is different and is not safe to assume that presenting an animal to a person struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts will solve their problems.
“While pets are a powerful preventative relationship for some older people, just thinking that a pet will help every older suicidal person can put both animals and people at risk,” she said.
However, she said it is also important not to overlook the importance of older people’s relationship with pets, because “for some, pets are lifesavers.”
Suicide rates have been decreasing across the world, but authors said the risk in older people is higher than other age groups.
Several studies have proven that pets can decrease risk of heart disease and are an antidote to loneliness that can accompany older age. This lead the researchers to learn more about the impact of pets to seniors’ well-being.
The researchers asked 35 pet owners, aged 59 to 83, about their lives living with their animal companions. They found that the responsibility of having to feed and care for their animals gave the seniors a sense of purpose. The study also concluded that having pets made them feel less lonely.
“I do suffer badly from depression, and you know, and I honestly think if it wasn’t for Elvis (her dog) wanting to get up and walk every morning, I would probably just sit home here in the four walls,” said one woman. “Even now, there’s times when I don’t want to leave the house and I just don’t want to mix with people, but I’m forced to go out, because Elvis wants to go.”
Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry for the Montefiore Health System in New York City, said he had people tell him about their suicidal thoughts, but suddenly thought about who would care for their pets when they’re gone.
“Animals provide a presence and companionship. They respond to your vocalizations. You feed them, groom them and with a dog, walk them. There’s reciprocity and companionship in the relationship,” he said.