Helping Seniors with Pet Loss

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We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we would still live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.  ~ Irving Townsend

Loss of a beloved pet is difficult under any circumstances, but it can be particularly so for people in their senior years, whose most consistent experience at this stage of life is loss. By now they have lost parents, spouses, siblings, children or close friends to death. Their physical strength, stamina and mobility have lessened. With retirement, their identity with a prior occupation is lost, along with the usual routine and the opportunity for socialization in the workplace. If living on a fixed income, even their former standard of living is lost.

Feeling deprived of so much, it's not surprising that older people develop such meaningful relationships with—and become so attached to—their pets. Such attachments are significant and enduring, and meet a whole range of physical and emotional needs.

Loving and caring for a pet enables an older person to
  • feel productive, useful and needed
  • engage more actively in life, as the animal depends on the person for food, water, exercise and medical care
  • feel companionship and closeness with another, thereby feeling secure, protected, supported and not alone
  • be motivated toward better care of the self, out of responsibility for the pet
  • feel touched, both physically and emotionally
  • have someone to talk to and communicate with
  • feel loved unconditionally
Until we recognize the significance of the animal in the elderly person's life, we cannot appreciate the magnitude of the loss or the intensity of the grief. A pet may be the only family a senior person has, and when the pet dies, there is no family left. There is no longer a sense of being needed. There is no care to give. There is no warmth, no affection, no touching, no companionship, no one to talk to, no one to sleep with, no one to feel important to. The house is too empty, too quiet, too lonely. There is no stimulus to keep going, to stay active, to take care of oneself lest the pet be neglected—there is no structure or meaning in the daily routine. If the pet had belonged to a deceased spouse or had been a gift from someone now gone, the final symbolic link to the deceased loved one is lost. If there is incomplete resolution of past losses, this pet's death can trigger unresolved grief. It can also trigger the realization that one's own health is failing, or that the later days of one's own life are fast approaching.

When facing the loss of a beloved animal companion, an older person needs someone (friend, neighbor, family member) in their environment on whom they can lean for support, and with whom they can confer to help them make a decision about their pet's care.

If you know an older person in this situation, and if you are willing and able to offer needed support, you may be wondering what you can do to help. Here are some suggestions:
  • Keep in mind that such individuals may not be able to afford complicated diagnostic and treatment procedures. When their companion animals are sick or dying, they may be forced to make life and death decisions based on finances—and they may need extra support and understanding.

  • Seniors may be basing current decisions on outdated information or prior bad experiences with veterinarians, pet death or euthanasia. They may need encouragement to discuss their questions and concerns more openly with their veterinarian. You might offer to accompany your elderly friend or relative on such a veterinary visit. Realize that older folks may need more time to process and to comprehend what is said to them, especially if they're upset—or hearing impaired. Ask that the veterinarian speak clearly, repeat information if necessary, and write down material that may be forgotten.  

  • Seniors may be more stoic and quiet in their grief, not as comfortable as the younger generation in expressing feelings openly. On the other hand, they may be more "seasoned" (older, wiser and better able to cope) than we give them credit for. Rather than assuming what your older friend needs, better to observe, listen, and ask!

  • Sometimes elderly pet parents are concerned about what will happen to their animals in the event that they themselves become ill, are in an accident, are hospitalized or die. They may be fearful that their pets will outlive their owners and will have no one to care for them. Sadly these concerns can motivate euthanasia of an otherwise healthy animal, or they can prevent seniors from getting another pet after their loved one has died. But there are other alternatives. Seniors can be encouraged to: 1) carry a wallet-sized card for special instructions for pet care, listing the owner's pets, where they are and who should care for them in case of an emergency; 2) draft an estate provision that specifies where the pet will go; or 3) make prior arrangements with friends or family members for the pet's care. 

  • If the timing is appropriate and your older friend seems open to suggestions, s/he may consider adopting an older pet, or providing foster (temporary) care for shelter animals waiting for adoption.

  • Be a patient, understanding listener. More than anything else, seniors may just need someone to talk to honestly and openly about their own feelings — about other pets or loved ones who have died in the past, about earlier losses they've endured, about their own failing health or aging, or even about their own dying.
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