“Her decision to go to the hospital depended on what happened to her cat. Her recovery depended on the cat’s well being. So I had to find someone to care for her cat. I never thought that animal welfare would be a part of my job!”
— Adult Protective Services caseworker
While many animal-assisted therapy and activities programs are happily directed toward the elderly, there is often a “dark side” to the human-animal bond with elders. Many senior citizens are unable to care for beloved pets properly due to financial, physical and transportation constraints. Others neglect their own needs to use limited financial resources to care for their animals. The intensely intimate attachment that many elders may feel toward a pet – especially if the animal was a last link to a deceased loved one – may be especially devastating when the animal dies.
Animals provide many people with a sense of reward, purpose, acceptance, and conflict-free relationships. Seniors are the age group most likely to carry this human-animal bond to unhealthy extremes through animal hoarding. Investigators in homes with dozens or even hundreds of living and dead animals always recognize many accompanying health, safety, zoning, fire, and mental health issues. Currently, there is no known cure for animal hoarding and there is a 100% recidivism rate.
Adult Protective Services caseworkers find that many clients refuse to go to a hospital or nursing facility until their beloved pets are cared for. In one study, 45% of caseworkers had encountered intentional animal abuse or neglect co-occurring with elder abuse; 92% saw animal neglect co-existing with clients’ inability to care for themselves.
Today, we recognize that animal hoarding – the stereotypical “crazy cat lady” – is not a harmless eccentricity, but a potentially serious problem for the animals, other family members and the community.
Animal therapists provide healing interactions with the non-institutionalized elderly as well as those residing in long-term care facilities. Therapists, working with animal shelters, veterinarians and other groups, can provide pet transport services, low-cost food banks, foster care, and discount spay/neuter and vaccination programs to help seniors continue to enjoy the healing presence of their beloved animal companions.
The National Link Coalition has extensive resources on the Link between animal abuse and elder maltreatment. For a comprehensive bibliography of research on this topic, click here.