Our pets provide us with boundless, unconditional love. They fill us with such happiness, laugher, and companionship, that it becomes impossible to imagine a life without them by our side. For many, pets give us a sense of family, friendship, and purpose, so much so, that the grief that stems from their loss is devastating.
For seniors in particular though, the magnitude of grief that ensues from a loss of a pet can cause untold emotional and mental suffering. While there are many reasons that contribute to why this is, the main one comes from the strength of the attachment that seniors can have with their pets. In this guide, we are going to take a look at why seniors form such strong bonds with their pets, what benefits pets provide to seniors, what the impacts are of pet loss, and how to help seniors citizens cope with pet loss.
While coping with pet loss is extremely difficult for all of us who have become attached to our beloved cat, dog, bird, or lizard (among others), but for senior citizens dealing with pet loss, it can be unbearable. This is because seniors form intense emotional bonds with their pets because it gives them back purpose, a sense of caring, and a relationship that they have likely lost elsewhere in their life during a time where life is particularly difficult for them.
Here are some of the reasons why a senior citizen may form an extremely strong bond with a pet.
In the majority of cases, senior citizens are at a stage in life where their most consistent experience is loss. They may have lost a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or even a child. The loss of their support system of relatives and close friends, can make their life feel like it is not worthwhile.
A lot of senior citizens have less independence. This can be due to less physical mobility or a failing memory. There is often more time spent at home and not as much interaction with the outside world.
Semi-independent senior citizens often only have a few friends that they stay in contact with over the years, reducing how much socialization they get. While seniors can join in on clubs, organizations, and take up hobbies, not everyone does or wants too.
Senior citizens lose a part of their identity when they stop working in their educational fields or career fields. With this loss of identity also comes lost connections, lost passion, and lost purpose.
While retirement might seem like a fantastic place for a lot of seniors to be, those who experience too much grief during this period of time, may find themselves questioning who they are and what they want to do with the rest of their life.
A lot of senior citizens live on fixed incomes, making it difficult to get out and see the world. When stuck at home or within a very small social environment, the quality and standard of living degrades quickly causing loneliness, depression, and sorrow to set in.
When all of these things are combined, it is not surprising that seniors often feel like they are deprived of purpose, of need, and of relationships that have meaning to them. A pet tends to provide one of the few, if not the only, meaningful attachment that they have, giving way to an extremely strong bond that meets a large range of both physical and emotional needs.
Let’s take a look at what needs a pet can fill as a companion in the later stages of life.
Pets provide so much more to seniors than anyone else, largely due to the lifestyle many seniors are forced into. They’re mostly retired, staying at home, and struggling to find activities to keep preoccupied with. Additionally, they may lack the energy or mobility to maintain an active lifestyle, limiting their options considerably.
Pets need to be cared for, and a senior’s lifestyle is well suited to focusing on a pet’s requirements. Since the pet is dependent on the care that the senior provides, this in turn provides the senior with the purpose of properly caring for their pet.
Having a pet can encourage a senior to lead an active lifestyle simply by basic care for the pet.
If the senior and a loved one picked the pet out together at the shelter and adopted it as a “together” activity, then that pet is always going to have a special link to someone.
This can also be the case if the pet was adopted by the senior and a child or close friend took an immense liking to the animal. When a pet has a special link to a loved one, it can help you feel close to that loved one (through memories) even if they are not present.
Unfortunately, seniors tend to live in places where there isn’t a lot of social connection. If they are semi-independent and do not have a loved one that lives with them, it could be weeks or months before they see a fellow family member or close friend. This is especially true if they are unable to drive themselves anywhere or travel with ease.
For seniors who live in retirement homes or nursing homes, the only people they may see on a daily basis are those who deliver food, clean the rooms, or provide medications. It goes without saying that having a pet by your side during this time of your life provides immense benefits for socialization and companionship. It gives you someone to talk to during the day, which can be a source of comfort and partnership.
Pets provide unconditional love because you are their entire world. They rely on their handler to feed them, love them, and play with them as well as teach them. They will love you without any limitations, conditions, or judgements and will always be by your side regardless of what hardships you go through.
This giving and receiving of unconditional love creates an environment of pure acceptance, security, and reliance on one another.
In addition to staving off loneliness and helping combat depression, owning a pet decreases physical ailments that come with sitting still for too long, as a pet requires daily activity such as walks, toy time, and zoomies (both cats and dogs love to just run around the house at nothing in particular).
Since we are responsible for taking care of their physical and emotional needs, this in turn, helps seniors with taking better care of themselves. More walks happen, laser pointers come out, and lots of snuggles and conversations are had.
Following the initial shock of the pet’s passing, seniors will often experience intense feelings of loss and loneliness. This may be because the pet was the closest thing they had left to family and now have none, or simply because there is no longer a sense of being needed by someone or a place to focus their love and attention.
This can result in an array of thoughts, emotions and actions, such as:
With the passing of their pet, it may remind a senior that the end of their own life is approaching. This can cause them to think about their will and their estate, contemplate what their own funeral will be like, or cause them to feel sad about all the things they did not get to do in their life.
While thinking about these things is not necessarily bad, if they choose to dwell on the negative emotions associated with this portion of their life, it could lead them to feeling depressed.
If the pet had a link or affiliation with a loved one that has already passed, such as a spouse, child, or close friend, the pet’s passing may dredge up any unresolved grief or anger. This can compound on top of what they are already feeling, may lead to emotional outbursts, demotivation, and a complicated weave of negative emotions that they feel like they cannot escape from.
This can suck away any will to live or positive outlooks on life.
Seniors who experience depression don’t necessarily feel sad. It could manifest in a number of ways that can almost all be associated with feeling like they are no longer necessary.
In addition to this, they may struggle with profound grief that leads to depression, if they were unable to adequately care for their pet due to financial limitations, physical limitations, or forced into a living arrangement that pressures them into giving their pet up.
Seniors often feel that others don’t quite understand just how important their pet was to them, or are met with well-meaning words that come off as diminishing of their emotions.
If they are seemingly doing well at adjusting outwardly to life after a pet loss, make sure to talk with them, as they may be experiencing disenfranchised grief (not being able to publicly mourn their pet loss).
One of the first things that you notice after the loss of a pet is that the home in which they lived, changes drastically. It ends up lacking a lot of affection (the bark of a dog when you come home or a cat scratching for food), and there is no longer anyone to talk to or snuggle with. The house ends up being quiet, lonely, and empty, therefore, lacking the warmth that a pet added to the home.
This also means that there is no reason to get up in the morning (walks/feeding), no reason to stay active, and no one but yourself to take care of. Without the structure and companionship of a pet, the meaning of a daily routine becomes obsolete.
If you have a senior citizen close to you, such as a parent, grandparent, or friend, that is going through the process of losing a pet, it is important to be there for them, listen to them, and understand the severity of their feelings. Remember that death affects everyone differently and the attachment your senior citizen has to their pet is paternal in nature and irreplaceable.
If you are looking for supportive and proactive ways to help them through this very difficult and grief-ridden time, here are several options for you.
A large part of the grieving process is dealing with the shock of the sudden absence of your senior’s pet. Encouraging them to process their memories by talking about them, is a great way to transform the focus and focal point from the idea that their pet is gone and towards the wonderful memories that were spent with them.
It is important to recognize that they may have a hard time talking about their pet at first. If this is the case, don’t force it and allow them to come to you. If you do feel like they want to talk but need a little help in getting there, here are some gentle starting points.
As they talk about their pet and share their stories with you, it is important to be an active listener that does not interrupt, keeps the conversation going, and acknowledges their loss through kind words. Be patient with them as they may repeat the same stories to you.
It is likely that your senior’s pet was one of the very few social contacts that they had on a daily basis. When their pet passes away, maintaining contact with them can help to greatly reduce the loneliness and isolation they undoubtedly will feel.
When talking with them, whether in-person or on the phone (video), make sure to be sympathetic and understanding of their feelings. They will have complicated feelings about the passing of their pet, possibly including unresolved guilt, anger, or sadness.
Encourage them to talk about these feelings but don’t use unhelpful phrases that diminish the value of their pet’s life. Phrases like denote that their pet is in a better place or that tell them they should just get another pet, can really harm their ability to open up about their grief.
Losing a pet is stressful enough, but as a senior it can be detrimental to their health. This is especially true if the senior citizen has low mobility, has no one else to help them, or their pet was their primary social connection.
There are a few ways you can offer to help in this area.
Most seniors are on a fixed income and may not be able to afford the cremation fee, the price of an urn, or any of the costs associated with putting on a pet funeral. If the senior wants to pay for the cremation or funeral service, you can offer to pay for groceries, utility bills, or other small bills that would alleviate other forms of lifestyle stress.
When coping with pet loss or euthanasia of a pet, arranging to have them cremated may be the farthest thing from your senior’s mind as they will still be dealing with the shock, the grief, and the loneliness.
Helping them to put together all of the preparations for cremation will allow them to focus on themselves and their well-being. Plus, some senior citizens may not know where they can go for cremation services, how to pay for them, or even how to book for it.
Some things to think about include:
Cremation services require a vessel for ashes to be held in, but with so many options available and ways to customize these urns, your senior citizen may feel overwhelmed. You can help them find the perfect one for their pet by doing the following. There are some things to keep in mind when helping a senior choose a pet urn.
Depending on the senior citizen’s living situation, the type of material wanted for the urn may change. For those in long term care facilities, something more durable may be appropriate in case it is accidentally knocked or dropped.
Options such as shape, color, fine details like font style and color, photos and engravings, all play a role in capturing the personality of the pet and making it as truly unique as the pet it’s meant for.
For a senior citizen, pet loss can mean the loss of a friend, a loyal companion, and the loss of great joy in their lives. It may also cause them to consider what their own mortality will be like which can induce depression. Professional services such as group therapy give seniors a safe place to express their feelings with others that have had similar pet loss experiences.
Look out for the following signs of depression such as weight loss, loss of appetite and lack of self-care. You may also notice loss of motivation or an unwillingness to socialize with others.:
If you see any of these in your senior citizen, encourage them to seek out professional help, either through in-person visits with a therapist or through online phone call sessions.
Look for shared interest groups that they can take part in within their local community. Not only will this help keep their physical health up and increase mobility, but it also provides them with a place to socially connect with others of their own age.
Many communities will host a seniors section in the newspaper and social media platforms such as Facebook may have groups that are designed to keep seniors connected.
Also check with your local church or community center to see what is offered. Additionally, nursing homes and hospitals may provides some great information.
If you are unable to make in-person visits or call them, consider sending them their favorite flowers or a note/card in the mail.
Flowers can help brighten up their day, make them feel loved when the gift is unexpected, and give them something to nurture for a while.
As for a card or note in the mail, this gives you some room to express your sympathies and allows you to reiterate that you are there for them and that they can reach out to you at any time.
If you are extremely close with the senior citizen, you can always have a photocopy made of their most treasured photo and have it placed into a pet keepsake. For instance, a pet cremation jewelry like a photo engraved heart pendant is a sentimental gift that may lift their spirits and help them feel closer to their lost pet.
Research support hotlines that your senior (or you) can contact if their grief crisis is beyond your support capabilities. Social group resources like group therapy that specializes in pet grief can also be a viable option and create opportunity for like-minded connection with others who are going through the same process.
Lap of Love: The site is operated from 7:00am - 11:00pm and offers guidance and support for pet parents. You can call in or email them and there are plenty of user support reviews.
Day by Day Pet Caregiver Support: Offers in-person group circles that specialize in anticipatory grief and pet loss.
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement: Professionally trained volunteers that provide pet loss counseling.
Everlife Memorials: Provides nationwide address locations and phone numbers of pet loss support groups by state.
When the time comes that your senior is ready, helping them find a new pet to care for is an important step in finalizing the healing process of losing their previous one. This step comes with its own set of challenges, but by involving yourself in the process, you can help to alleviate any worries or anxiety your senior still has.
Remember too that a new pet is a very personal decision. Be kind, compassionate and understanding of their wishes.
Ensure that the new pet will fit into the lifestyle your senior keeps to. An older, more mature pet that’s used to a low energy environment may likely better suited than a puppy.
Go with them to the breeder or shelter and ask questions such as basic questions about nutrition and physical needs. With more mature pets, you will also want to ask about medical needs such as, whether they have medications they must take, and any preferences that the breeder or shelter has noticed about that particular pet.
Your senior may hold some reservations about getting a new pet, for fear of the pet outliving them and being left without a home. You can help by making plans for where the pet will go, should this be the case (see below).
One of the major issues that comes up with senior citizens and pet ownership is the concern or fear about what will happen to their pet in the event that they become ill themselves, have an accident, and are hospitalized for an extended period of time or pass away. The fear of outliving their pet and their pet having to go to a shelter or having no one to take care of them, can motivate early enthuanasia in healthy animals or it can prevent them from taking on a new pet.
If you see this issue coming up with your senior citizen, consider doing the following:
If these alternative options do not help alleviate the fear, consider encouraging them to take on temporary fostering. Temporary fostering places the animal in the home of a caregiver that has agreed to take care of the pet for a short period of time.
There are several benefits to temporarily fostering a lovely cat, dog, or bird, including helping an animal through antisocial behavior and showing them that they are cared for and loved - seeing the animal go through this change can be life altering to the foster parent.
Senior animals may not fit well into a shelter filled with lots of noise and animal smells, so a foster home is a better place for them to be until they can get a forever home. Foster parents have a lot of say or influence in who gets to take the pet home, providing them with a sense of purpose and achievement.
Companionship, even if temporary, can help breathe new life into a senior citizen’s own zest for living. It can help them see new perspectives, motivate them to find new loves, and take up new passions.
In short, a temporary foster can help with the grief process and may help warm them up to pet ownership again.
The loss of a pet is never easy for anyone involved and the impact of their passing can have lifelong effects. For seniors, the special bond they form with their pets is often the one they hold most dear, making the loss of that bond much harder to cope with. No matter what your relation is to a senior going through a difficult time like this, there are plenty of steps you can take to remind them of just how needed and loved they still are.
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August 20, 2020 by Frances Kay