The participants were mainly women and the ages were in the range 70-81. They were mainly living alone and independently. Most of them were religious. The study included cats and dogs.
For an elderly lady there is one advantage in keeping a dog rather than a cat: warnings about intruders and then a possible defence. Dogs can provide a sense of safety that perhaps cats cannot provide.
The remainder of the benefits apply equally to cats and dogs, although I refer to cats.
Being responsible for a companion animal
This is an interesting and slightly hidden benefit. People want to be needed.
“Being responsible for the well-being of another living being enhances feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.”
In old age people can feel to be of less worth. They can be sidelined in certain cultures and caring for a cat preserves the role as “caretaker”. There appears to be a deep need in humans to take care of another being. I wonder whether this is more important for women. It must vary substantially between individual people. Taking on the responsibility of caring for a cat fills that void. The person feels needed. It is called “nurturance” in the study.
For me this is a very important benefit of caring for a cat. I know that I have a need to care for another being. This is one reason why some people are driven to adopt more cats than might be wise.
Feeling comfortable at home – attachment and emotional closeness
Attachment and emotional closeness is the most important “social provision” provided by the relationship with a companion animal.
Giving love and affection to a cat and receiving it in return (in the cat’s own way) makes people feel more comfortable at home. Physical contact with a cat makes a person feel more at ease. My cat comes to me in bed or while I am sitting in an armchair and lies next to me. He wants the physical contact and so do I. We both benefit from that closeness. A cat seeking closeness with a person makes the person feel wanted.
“He is my close companion”
“I feel lonely without him”
It goes without saying that there is usually a strong emotional bond between the companion animal and the owner.
In response to the question: “Do you receive emotional support from your pet(s), and if so, how?” 44 of the 96 participants answered as follows (words in brackets are mine):
|Form of emotional support as stated by the participants||Number of participants|
|By their presence (just being there with the person)||9|
|By their initiating approaches towards me (your cat comes to you)||7|
|By their attention to me and noticing my emotions (does your cat notice or sense your emotions?)||11|
|By their sitting on my lap||4|
|By their demonstrations of affection towards me||2|
|By providing distractions||2|
|By providing opportunities to talk and to pet||9|
|By giving me a reason to go on with my life||5|
|No support or no experience of this (this is participants saying they did not believe in getting emotional support from their cat. Also 16 of the 96 participants considered the question “purposeless of inappropriate”)||6|
The light green highlighted text is rather profound. Cats can keep you alive for a substantial percentage (11%) of people. The responses show us how companion animals support the elderly in times of stress and sorrow.
We also have to recognise that some elderly cat owners don’t have the same sort of connection with their cat as others have as is highlighted in grey.
Social Network – Social Integration – Social Media
I think this is an important topic today with the explosion in internet usage. A lot of people get a lot fun, and make social connections via the internet because they care for a cat and have many “cat experiences”. PoC is one example. Facebook is another and so on. Cats help us make social connections on the internet. For elderly people this is important. More elderly people are learning about the internet.
Caring for a cat brings people together. People can:
“share a sense of belonging to a group of people who share common interests or concerns.”
This feeling of belonging is not limited to the internet. When you own a cat you can gain friends locally. There are numerous ways this can occur. Companion animals are good ice-breakers and a good topic of conversation. This is important to battle against loneliness.
Observing your cat
Cats make you smile. When I first created PoC, I said that cats make you smile. It’s true and making you smile is important if you live alone as an elderly person. A cat’s behavior not only makes you smile it gives a person a topic of conversation and it distracts a person from physical and psychological stress.
This is another hidden benefit. Caring for a cat provides structure and routine to one’s life. These are good qualities as they help with survival for the elderly.
These are just examples. I have been selective to keep this post shorter and manageable. There are other benefits for elderly people in caring for a cat.
- The study is referred to in the book: Companion Animals & US – ISBN-13 978-0-521-01771-8 (paperback)