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Feature January 2018 Issue

An Antidote for Loneliness?

Researchers match seniors with foster cats to see if the relationship can help people feel happier.

Women with cat

Pavel Losevsky | Dreamstime

Researchers are going to start examining the benefits of pet ownership on mental and emotional health in older adults living alone by matching research participants with homeless foster cats.

Funded by a two-year grant from the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), faculty from the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Family and Consumer Science and the Obesity Initiative will come together to collaborate on this project.

With the participation of the Athens Area Humane Society and the University of Georgia’s Campus Cats organization — a rescue group that helps homeless cats on campus — the team started matching foster parents and felines last October. The 34 pairs of cats and seniors will be assessed throughout the study to determine whether having a pet in the home leads to changes in quality of life. Assessments include loneliness, emotional well-being and purpose of life scales, as well as attachment to, and comfort from, the foster cats. The team is led by Heidi Ewen, PhD, and Sherry Sanderson, DVM, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Housing and health are essential to overall well being, a fact that pertains to both humans and animals,” explains Heidi Ewen, assistant professor at the Colleges of Public Health and family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia. “We have proposed a unique solution to help older adults living alone to establish new social bonds by pairing them with homeless foster cats.”

Researchers hope to find improvements in mental and behavioral health, including reduction in loneliness and depression, and that an attachment to the cat will increase the duration of fostering or lead to actual adoption.

“As efforts around the country have increased to reduce euthanasia rates of homeless pets, there is an increasing reliance upon foster homes to bridge the time between intake and permanent adoption,” says Dr. Sanderson. “This study fulfills the needs of two populations that can mutually benefit each other — and is the perfect example of one health.”

The majority of people who live alone are 75 years or older, and many of them tend to spend their days inside the home. For those who are single, it can be hard for them to maintain social connections.

Furthermore, living alone can cause struggles for an individual to plan meals or engage in other daily activities without another person around to share them.

“But once they have a pet in the house, they have a reason to get up and to do things, a sense of purpose,” says Dr. Ewen. “They have something to care for who depends on them. Additionally, we believe that older adults who live alone will be ideal foster parents because they can give the cat love and a lot more individualized attention than somebody who works and is away from the house nine or ten hours a day.” — Catnip staff

Comments (12)

I am 68 now and starting to feel that old. I have always had at least one cat, and cannot imagine life withouit one. Three years ago I lost two wonderful cats - one to old age and one to a bowel disease. I was heartbroken!
Life intervened. A woman moved into an empty house across the street and began renovating it. When I met her, I met a cat - a large gray/black tabby, who came running up to me, tail up, ears forward. The woman was shocked. "He is scared of everyone but ME!!" she said. She asked if I mioght want to adopt him. She had been feeding him for a year and had him neutered a couple months ago. Well, I thought and thought, over several days...and then it hit me: This cat had chosen ME. I had no choice except to adopt him! And it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Jackson Bear is - simply - a wonderful cat. Big, beautiful gentle, playful and very affectionate. He chose ME and I am very grateful.
I believe that most humans would be happier if they could love and be gentle with a pet. I also think that older people especially need this attachment. Love is a wonderful feeling and being NEEDED is even better. Our cats need us and we need them. Symbiosis at work, I guess.

Posted by: missannienow | May 7, 2018 5:05 PM    Report this comment

I live alone, but I go out almost every day. It's wonderful to have someone greet me when I get home. We look out at the bad weather and feel sorry for people who have to slog through it, walking their dogs. I've always had cats, and prefer them to most humans. People have told me that they don't like cats because they're "sneaky". Are you kidding? Humans are much better at obnoxiousness. At least cats are straightforward about their agendas. Warm, furry, and affectionate, mine is certainly welcome during this cold winter!

Posted by: Jan | February 10, 2018 2:18 PM    Report this comment

i live next to a river and people drop their unwanted cats here. lpropbably thinking they can catch fish to survive or something.
anyway, i have an open patio on the river and they come up on my patio. well, can't let them go hungry so i buy food and try to feed them all once a day. a momma cat is in my garage right now. she has 3 little darling kittens and they are nice and cozy in a box with blankets to keep them warm. when the mother gets through nursing them, i will take her over and get her spayed. wish i could afford to do them all. it would really cut down the cat population around here. But-------------------i will not let them go hungry so i feed them all. isn't easy since i'm on social security and 89 years old but i will continue for as long as i can.

Posted by: FURBALL | January 18, 2018 12:42 AM    Report this comment

My husband and I have 2 cats. We have been married for 12 years. After serving for 32 years in the military, my husband is finally retired. One cat was discovered in the desert near the Base and the other a shelter rescue. The 2 cats, Max Dude 9 and Joey Lil'Dude 6 (the "kids) are the closest thing to children we have. The impact the "kids" have on my husband and his PTSD is remarkable. When he is agitated the "kids" get anxious, when I get agitated with my husband, the "kids" are supportive. The "kids" have their own extraordinary personalities. My husband is surprised when the "kids" want to snuggle with him at night. He is also surprised by the fact they bring never ending entertainment and enjoyment constantly by their antics and demands. My husband is learning about unconditional love, and finding new ways to feel like he belongs at home. And I feel like my family is whole again.

Posted by: Dudette | January 8, 2018 8:22 PM    Report this comment

For me this is a no brainer. My husband of 33 years passed away 2 1/2 years ago and for health reasons I could no longer take care of my 14 year old Cocker. After having him driven to my sister's home in another state I was alone and spoke about adopting an older cat from the shelter. My close friend chose a 6 year old cat for me and Willy has filled a void that I thought would never be filled. I feel so blessed to have him in my life and I know that my loneliness would be unbearable without him. He is the most wonderful companion and my life is so much better with Willy in it.

Posted by: Barbara | January 8, 2018 2:28 PM    Report this comment

I have 11 cats, two of which are feral...altho coming around. At age 78 I appreciate the "get up and go" routine the cats provide me with. Not only boxes to be cleaned, feeding, taking care of hairballs, but I now have two on for hyperthyroid and the other with a suspected oral cancer...he gets pred once a day..and force feeding 75% of the time. He is 17. He is the oldest, the youngest is four. I love them dearly and have owned cats for 62 years now. Never been without ...I think the idea of pets for the elderly is great!! Always been a homebody... do not get out much in winter.

Posted by: zimmy | January 8, 2018 2:27 PM    Report this comment

I would like to tout our program Senior Laps for SeniorCats, at the Monmouth Co. (NJ) SPCA. I know we're not the first but we started in November 2016 and have adopted out over 25 senior cats, age 7 Years and over. Adopter gets reduced fee, two free in home wellness visits from a vet in the first year (that's for the cat, notthe owner!) and all sorts of helpful support. Any cat adoption program should give this a try. Linda Z

Posted by: Bandjmother | January 8, 2018 2:26 PM    Report this comment

I've had cats all my life . . . I'm 74 now and have 2 four year old girls, Sophie & Harriet . . . they're great company and love to sit with me and be petted and talked to . . . I call them Sweetie Pie and Babykins . . . my last 2 girls lived to be 14, and before that I had 2 boys that made it to 20 & 21 . . . have had a few dogs also, but not for quite a while . . . Yes, pets are indeed a blessing!

Posted by: mariluliz | January 8, 2018 12:09 PM    Report this comment

I've seen many people (with my previous job of in-home care) that have one or more cats. The idea that it will motive them to get up and do things, is an admirable idea. The truth is that some people are still lazy and expect the cats to come to them when called and rely on others to do the majority of the cat care, as they can't be bothered. These people feel that they are giving the cats a better life and that the cats owe them for it.

Posted by: davidvidk | January 8, 2018 10:44 AM    Report this comment

I have 4 cats and each one has their own personality. They range from 16 years down to 2years. I wouldn't be without them. They are my furbabies. My cats own me too.

Posted by: nutsy44 | January 8, 2018 9:48 AM    Report this comment

My fat cat, Thelma, greets me at the door. I'm 72 and there are no other humans in my home, but Thelma brings lots of love and happiness! She's been with me 11 years now, and she's a far better companion than either of my two deceased husbands ever were! Thelma listens to all I have to say, is kind and affectionate daily, and never cares what I'm wearing. By the way, I actually disliked cats until family circumstances landed Thelma in my home. It took all of a week to win me over, and now I can't imagine life without her! So precious!

Posted by: KB | January 8, 2018 9:40 AM    Report this comment

As a senior citizen and living alone, I do have 3 cats and 1 puppy. Or should I say that the cats own me! I admit that I carry on a conversation with my pets all day. The puppy is a handful but I'm outside 15 times a day and many of my neighbors are dropping by to see her and are involved in watching her grow. I am far more social with her than without her.
Thank you to all 4 of them! I love you too!

Posted by: pocus | January 8, 2018 9:23 AM    Report this comment

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