Journal of Gerontological Nursing

Can Pets Help the Bereaved?

Dale A Lund, PhD; Robert Johnson, PhD; Hassan N Baraki, MS; Margaret F Dimond, RN, PhD

Abstract

At times of loss, the burden of caring for a pet may become overwhelming to the elderly.

Abstract

At times of loss, the burden of caring for a pet may become overwhelming to the elderly.

Learning more about the management of the stress produced by the loss of a spouse, especially among the elderly, is one of the most important concerns of the health-care profession. Health professionals, the clergy, funeral directors and other professionals involved in death-related processes all receive specialized training to deal with death and bereavement. Initially the bereaved spouse may turn to such professionals, but such encounters are usually limited to short periods of time. Neighbors, family members and community resources are also cited frequently as coping resources available to the bereaved. However, there is at least one coping resource that has been ignored during bereavement, namely, pet ownership.

What is the contribution of pet ownership to coping during bereavement among a non-institutionalized population? What are the potential benefits? Benefits, if any, can be examined in terms of their potential to prevent deleterious effects of bereavement, such as depression and loneliness, which are two of the most common and persistent problems.1 This study differs from previous research on the role of human-animal interaction in that the participants were not institutionalized or selected because of a clinical diagnosis.27

Past studies suggest that the presence of a pet is associated with an increase in social behavior, and a decrease in loneliness and depression among the elderly. Searles8 suggested that elements of the non-human environment such as animals provide a practice ground for experience in relatedness that could be transformed to human relationships. Furthermore, Levinson and Fogle argue that pet ownership provides many valuable and significant relationships involving acceptance and unconditional love, two ingrethents that enrich human lives.3,9

Possibly one of the most important uses of pets has been in psychotherapy. Many pilot studies conducted in regard to the notion of pet-facilitated psychotherapy (PFP) indicate that pets can be used effectively in psychiatric settings and providing elderly with decreased depression and positive effects as companions.4,6,10,11 Brickel's5 staff survey of the therapeutic roles of pet mascots on a V.A. Hospital ward revealed that "... the utilization of pet mascots proved valuable, economic, and of minimal time cost to staff in their effort to improve the functioning of a total-care geriatric patient population."5

It is apparent mat many authors have presented their own explanations of why and how pets are helpful to elderly populations. There is, however, a need for more empirical research on this topic as suggested in a recent article by Robb and Stegman.12 These investigators reported that no health-related differences were found between petowners and non-owners among a sample of elderly veterans.

It should also be noted that there are arguments for opposing close contacts between humans and animals.2 Some concern is expressed over the risks to humans such as transmissible diseases, safety, noise and hygiene and also the risk to animals in terms of inadequate care and abuse.13 Another criticism deals with the actual costs of pet care.

It is obvious that more scientific/ empirical information is needed to clarify the utility and liabilities of pet ownership in terms of psychosocial adjustments, particularly among an elderly population.

One hundred ninety-two recently bereaved persons over the age of fifty participated in a longitudinal study on bereavement adaptation. They allowed an interview and filled out questionnaire data from four data collection periods covering the first year of bereavement.

All participants were residents of the Salt Lake Metropolitan area, were identified through obituary listings in local newspapers and were contacted within three weeks of the death of their spouse . All bereaved persons were randomly assigned to either a home interview group (N=104) or a mail-in questionnaire group (N=88). The data were collected at three weeks (YJ, two months (T^, six months (T3), and one year (T4) following the spouse's death. The timing of data collection is planned to coincide with the previously established stages of grief.14 For these analyses the interview and questionnaire groups are treated as a single sample of bereaved persons. Sixty-one percent of all bereaved spouses contacted during the initial data collection period beginning in January, 1981 refused to participate in the study. Refusal rates in previous studies are reported to range from 35% to 50% on initial contact. However, these studies did not contact surviving spouses as early as three weeks following the death.14,15 Tne resulting study sample was 74% female with a mean age of 67 years. The participants had been married for an average of 39 years and were 98% Caucasian. Although the sample is largely Mormon (74%), religious membership was not found to be a significant factor in nearly all of the measured bereavement outcomes.16

Comparative demographic data on pet owners and non-owners is presented in Table 1. Pet owners were more likely to be female than non-owners, and were found to be younger and employed fulltime.

Two major types of variable, general psychosocial adjustment during bereavement, as a dependent variable, and the presence of a confidant, gender and age as covariates were subject to analysis of variance by pet-ownership at each of the four time periods. Correlations of the major dependent variables with the number of pets owned were also obtained at all four time periods. Initial findings led to a second stage analysis of intervening variables that may have altered the effects of pet ownership on the major dependent variables. In addition to the quantitative analyses performed, transcripts of taped interviews were examined to determine the qualitative nature of unsolicited remarks about the subjects' feelings towards their pets. These data were available only from the interview group (N = 104). Each participant assigned to this interview group had approximately 30 minutes of their interview tape recorded where each person was encouraged to speak more openly about specific concerns and problems which they were experiencing. Although there are some limitations due to measurements based on single item and self-report assessments, the use of both quantitative and qualitative measurements in this study provides a relatively clear explanation of the existing relationships.

The initial analysis of variance found only one significant main effect: pet ownership on perceived coping ability. Main effects of having a specific confidant and gender were not significant during the first time period. Bereaved subjects without pets were better copers regardless of age, sex or having a specific confidant. These results did not support the expectations that pet ownership would have psychological benefits for the elderly persons during early bereavement. However, by time period three, six months after the death of the subject's spouse, pet ownership was no longer found to have any significant negative effects.

Table

TABLE 1DESCRIPTIVE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE STUDY SAMPLES AT T1

TABLE 1

DESCRIPTIVE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE STUDY SAMPLES AT T1

Table

TABLE 2DESCRIPTIONS OF THE FOUR MAJOR TYPES OF STUDY VARIABLES

TABLE 2

DESCRIPTIONS OF THE FOUR MAJOR TYPES OF STUDY VARIABLES

When correlations between the dependent variables and the number of pets were examined over the four time periods and compared with the mean number of pets an interesting pattern was discovered. At T1 there is a significant (negative) correlation between satisfaction with living arrangements and number of pets owned (See Table 5). This relationship disappears through the remaining time periods. The number of pets was not associated with any of the other indicators of psychological adjustments.

At this point, a second stage of the analysis was initiated to determine the nature of the adverse effect of pet ownership. Irritability, in the event that the pets may have been a source of irritation, and avoidance of reminders of spouse, in the event the pet may have belonged to the spouse, were examined as dependent variables of pet ownership. However, no significant main effects of pet ownership were discovered through this analysis of variance.

Finally, the qualitative data from the transcripts of the study group that was interviewed were analyzed. Of the 30 pet owners in the interview group only 11 (37%) made additional unsolicited comments about their pet(s). The qualitative data indicated that, for some people, pets were bothersome.

Implications

The clearest pattern uncovered in this research is the slight negative impact of pet ownership on self-reported coping levels with minimal or no apparent benefits. In the first two months following the death of a spouse pets cannot be considered as substitutes for human companionship or affection.

Practical implications of these results for clinicians, counselors, case workers and family members are that the bereaved spouse who is a pet owner is in need of added support and consideration. Arrangements for the care of a pet during the first three weeks would seem to ease the burden of coping with a spouse's death. Family members should not assume that a pet in the home will automatically ease the loneliness felt after the loss of a human companion. Even when the subject has close and affectionate relationships with pets, support network members should realize that the bereaved may not be used to caring for them on his/her own.

Table

TABLE 3ANOVA SUMMARY TABLE*

TABLE 3

ANOVA SUMMARY TABLE*

Table

TABLE 4MEAN COPING SCORES BY PET OWNERSHIP AND SEX*

TABLE 4

MEAN COPING SCORES BY PET OWNERSHIP AND SEX*

Table

TABLE 5PEARSON CORRELATION: NUMBER OF PETS BY SATISFACTION WITH UVING ARRANGEMENTS

TABLE 5

PEARSON CORRELATION: NUMBER OF PETS BY SATISFACTION WITH UVING ARRANGEMENTS

Table

TABLE 6MEAN NUMBER OF PETS BY TIME PERIODS

TABLE 6

MEAN NUMBER OF PETS BY TIME PERIODS

Based upon these findings, bereaved spouses should not be encouraged to take pets during these early periods and since some decide to get rid of pets during this period such a decision should receive sensitive support. The difficulty of such a decision, particularly in the case that the pet belonged to the deceased spouse, must be recognized and perhaps handled by support network members in terms of either removing the pet from the home temporarily or permanently or at least offering assistance with pet care responsibilities.

Finally, the special cases in which pets are beneficial as found in the qualitative analyses must be tempered by realizing that these comments are unsolicited. In most of these cases information regarding the nature of the relationship between subject and pet was volunteered. Therefore it can be assumed that this relationship is more significant than reports of pets to questionnaire or interview items. Such special cases may have some potential benefits for the bereaved but these are considered to be out of the ordinary.

References

  • 1. Lund DA: A perspective on aging and loss. Paper presented at the Veterans' Administration District 24 Conference on Disturbances in Cognitive Functioning in the Elderly. Denver, Colorado, September 1982.
  • 2. Cooper JC: Pets in hospitals. Br Med J 1976; 1:698-700.
  • 3. Fogle B: Interrelations Between People and Pets. Illinois, Charles Thomas Publishings, 1981.
  • 4. Corson SA, Corson E, Gwynne PH: Petfacilitated psychotherapy. In R. S. Anderson (Ed.), Pet Animals and Society. Bailliere Tmdall, London, 1975.
  • 5. Brickel CM: The therapeutic roles of cat mascots with a hospital-based geriatric population: A staff survey. Gerontologist 1979; 19(4):368-372.
  • 6. Mugford RA, M'Comisky JG: Some recent work on the psychotherapeutic value of cage birds with old people. In R. S. Anderson (Ed.), Pet Animals and Society. Bailliere Tindall, London, 1975.
  • 7. Robb SS, Boyd M, Pristash CL: A wine bottle, plant, and puppy. J Gerontolog Nurs 1980; 6:721-728.
  • 8. Searles HF: The Nonhuman Environment. International Universities Press, New York: 1980.
  • 9. Levinson BM: Pets and personality development. Psychol Rep 1978;42:1031-1038.
  • 10. Corson SA, Corson E, Gwynne PH, Arnold LE: Pet-facilitated psychotherapy in a hospital setting. Current Psychiatric Therapies 1975; 15:277-286.
  • 11. Corson SA, Corson E, Gwynne PH, Arnold LE: Pet dogs as nonverbal communication links in hospital psychiatry. Comprehensive Psychiatry 1977; 18:61-72.
  • 12. Robb SS and Stegman CE: Companion animals and elderly people: A challenge for evaluators of social support. Gerontologist 1983; 23(3):277-282.
  • 13. Westbrook GJ: Pet-facilitated therapy: benefits and dangers. Linkages, UCLA/USC Long-Term-Care Gerontology Center, Spring 1983:9-11.
  • 14. Glick I, Weiss RS, Parkes CM: The First Year of Bereavement. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974.
  • 15. Clayton P, Halikas J, Maurice W: The depression of widowhood. Br J of Psychiatry 1972; 120:71-78.
  • 16. Lund DA, Dimond M: Effects of religion and religious activity on the first six months of bereavement among late middle aged and elderly. Paper presented at the Gerontological Society of America Meetings, Boston, MA, November 1982.
  • 17. Zung W: A self-rating depression scale. Arch of General Psychiatry 1965; 12:63-70.
  • 18. Neugarten B, Havighurst R, Tobin S: The measurement of life satisfaction. Gerontology 1961; 16:134-143.
  • Work on this project was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging (XlROIAG 02193).

TABLE 1

DESCRIPTIVE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE STUDY SAMPLES AT T1

TABLE 2

DESCRIPTIONS OF THE FOUR MAJOR TYPES OF STUDY VARIABLES

TABLE 3

ANOVA SUMMARY TABLE*

TABLE 4

MEAN COPING SCORES BY PET OWNERSHIP AND SEX*

TABLE 5

PEARSON CORRELATION: NUMBER OF PETS BY SATISFACTION WITH UVING ARRANGEMENTS

TABLE 6

MEAN NUMBER OF PETS BY TIME PERIODS

10.3928/0098-9134-19840601-04

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