They Call it Puppy Love: Lonely Seniors Prefer Dogs to People

The expression that dog is man’s best friend is ages old, but recently-published research indicates that there may be more truth to the clichÃ?© than original thought.

William A. Banks, M.D., professor of geriatrics in the department of internal medicine and professor of pharmacological and physiological sciences at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, authored the study which found nursing home residents felt much less lonely after spending time alone with a dog than they did when they visited with a dog and other people.
“It was a strange finding,” said Banks, who also is a staff physician at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis. “We had thought that the dog acts as a social lubricant and increases the interaction between the residents. We expected the group dog visits were going to work better, but they didn’t.”

Pets are often used by long-term care facilities as a way to enhance socialization between people. For example, time spent with a pet gives nursing home residents something to talk about or an experience to share, Banks said.

However, it now appears the main way pets reduce loneliness in nursing homes is simply by being with people.
“The residents found a little quiet time with the pooch is a lot nicer than spending time with a dog and other people,” he said.
In the SLU study, 37 nursing home residents who scored high on a loneliness scale said they wanted to receive weekly, 30-minute visits from dogs. Half spent time alone with the dog, and the other half spent time with one to three other nursing home residents and the dog.

While both groups felt less lonely, the group that had one-on-one quality time with the dog experienced a much more significant decrease in loneliness after five to six weeks of visits.

“There is no need for a dog to be a social lubricant or icebreaker in a nursing home. Residents live with each other, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with each other, play bingo with each other,” Banks says. “The study also found that the loneliest individuals benefited the most from visits with dogs.”

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