Older Adults and Pet Loss
Cheryl D. Cuttineau, Ed.D.
Older adults experience more losses in a shorter period of time than anyone else. They often live alone and have less and less social contact. They go out less, and the sense of isolation and loneliness increases. Depression among the elderly has been called “an epidemic” (Ballinger, B. 2009. www.agingcare.com).
It comes as no surprise that when an older adult experiences the death of a beloved animal companion, the effects can be traumatic. While the death of a cherished pet is devastating under any circumstances, the elderly have special needs that are unique to the grieving process. If left unrecognized, the signs of depression can lead to a rapid deterioration in mental and physical condition, and even suicide (LaPointe, K. 2010. www.agingcare.com).
The National Center for Gerontological Social Work Education (http://www.cswe.org) recommends the following when dealing with an older adult who is grieving the death of a pet:
- Older adults need more time to process and express their feelings. Giving them this additional time shows genuine respect and concern for their needs.
- Spending time with an older adult lessens the loneliness and isolation. When an older adult loses a close relationship, the loneliness can be deep and hurtful. Inviting him or her out for a walk or cup of coffee can be especially helpful.
- Older adults may not only not feel comfortable discussing their feelings, they may not even be aware of any changes in their feelings or behaviors. By talking with them and gently pointing out observable differences, they may feel more trusting and open up.
- Sharing memories and reminiscing is a time-proven way to encourage older adults to talk about their experiences. Asking them about happy times with their pet takes away the focus on the grief they feel and aids the healing process.
The elderly are the most vulnerable segment of our society, and often, the most forgotten. If an older adult is having difficulty working through his or her grief over the death of an animal companion, the services of a pet loss counselor can be useful. “After all, the [counseling] is not as valuable as the time spent with the patient feeling valued and respected by a caring professional” (LaPointe, K. 2010).
Cheryl Cuttineau is a former California state-certified Long-Term Care Ombudsman for the Council on Aging-Orange County. She is still an active advocate for Elder Care Reform.