By Paula Fitzsimmons
Retirement is the time for slowing down and savoring the rewards of your hard work. Exploring new places, volunteering for that worthy cause you never had time for, and spending more quality time with family—both human and animal—may be high on your list.
This period can also fail to meet expectations. For one, loneliness can creep in, negatively impacting your health and wellbeing. According to research compiled by the Campaign to End Loneliness, feeling lonely can lead to an increased risk for maladies including high blood pressure, cognitive decline, and depression.
Having a faithful animal companion by your side during retirement can help alleviate these risks and transform this period into a time of joy. Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University says pets help us hold our focus and allow us to stay in the moment, which can ultimately result in less stress.
Having a pet can also give older caregivers a sense of purpose, according to the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A & M University, and it can lead to expanded social encounters and increased opportunities to exercise. The physical and psychological health benefits of pet ownership are numerous and well-documented.
There are several things you and your pet can do together to enhance your bond and make retirement even that much sweeter for the both of you.
Exploring new places can be an adventure for both you and your four-legged companion. It offers you opportunities to meet new people and broaden your experiences, and your pet will benefit by being exposed to new sights, sounds, and smells.
Exploration doesn’t necessarily have to entail exotic places, either—you can start your adventure in your own community. According to Janis Bradley, associate director of publications and communications at the National Canine Research Council, “There are more places where people can take a dog, such as dog parks, pet-friendly restaurants and stores, and outdoor cafes.”
If you’d like to travel longer distances with your pet, you have a wealth of options. The “Traveling With Your Pet – The AAA Petbook” lists more than 13,000 AAA-approved hotels with specific pet policies, about 1,000 restaurants that allow pets in their outside dining areas, and more than 800 pet-friendly campgrounds. Keep in mind that if you are travelling out of the state or country, you will need to obtain a health certificate for your pet before you leave.
If you plan to travel for extended periods, keep your pet safe by being prepared for any number of situations that may arise.
Some animal rescues and shelters hold fundraising events called dog jogs. They are similar to traditional marathons and races, except that you get to compete with your dog. For a small entrance fee, you can run or walk in a friendly environment and meet other animal lovers and their dogs—an activity your pup will also enjoy. Another added bonus is that both you and your dog are likely spend more time exercising in preparation for the event.
Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, DVM, director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships (CENTAUR) at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, recommends certifying your dog as a therapy pet: “Once your dog or other species of animal is certified, you can participate in things like hospital visits and study breaks for students. Some of our teams also participate in a library based reading program for children called ‘PAWS to Read.’"
Performing good acts not only spreads goodwill, but can improve your wellbeing, too. According to the Harvard Health Blog, there is a connection between volunteering and feeling socially-connected, a factor that may help to reduce depression and loneliness.
There’s no rule that says you have to be out and about all the time. Buechner-Maxwell says sharing more time with your pet, even if it’s just to relax on the sofa, can have important benefits. She says this bond benefits us, and helps to reduce an animal’s anxiety levels. This is consistent with other experts and veterinarians who say that dogs who receive no human interaction can become depressed.
Do you love to do the foxtrot, waltz, or tango? You can now partner with your dog in choreographed dance programs called canine freestyle. According to The World Canine Freestyle Organization, dancing with your dog is a fun sport encompassing showmanship, music, artistry, and athleticism. Not only does the activity help you hone your dancing skills, but it can also help you build your bond with your dog.
Canine freestyle is just one of the dog sports now available to animal lovers. “Many wonderful dog sports now exist in most cities, including flyball, agility training, and disc dogs,” says Bradley.
Several studies show yoga to have therapeutic qualities. Per an article published in The International Journal of Yoga, consistent practice may alleviate depression, improve flexibility, and promote optimal cardiovascular function.
But why practice alone when you can partner with your furred companion? The doggie version of yoga, called doga, can help improve your companion’s flexibility, health, and ability to relax. It’s not just for dogs, either. Some rescue groups have started to offer cat yoga classes where you can interact—and potentially adopt—adorable shelter cats.
If you’d like to supplement your retirement income while having fun, getting exercise and fresh air, consider becoming a part-time dog walker. You have the option of working as an employee through a dog-walking service, or venturing out and finding your own clients. Per PayScale, the median hourly wages for dogwalkers is $12 dollars per hour, but can vary depending on where you live.
Dr. Buechner-Maxwell says retirees don't always have to commit long-term to benefit from interactions with an animal. “Many shelters welcome volunteers. Fostering rescued pets until a forever home can be identified is another way to have an animal in your life for a shorter period,” she says.
Beck suggests considering smaller dogs or other pets such as cats and fish. But if you’re not ready to commit to a pet in the house, a bird feeder in the backyard may be enough to bring some joy and activity into your life. “Wild bird feeders are also a good option because they provide mental stimulation,” says Beck, who explains that backyard feeders encourage people to learn about and study different species of birds.
These activities can supplement the good care you already give your pet. Providing optimal nutrition and expert veterinary care, keeping informed on issues related to your specific animals, and making sure that you plan for your pet’s guardianship should you no longer be able to provide it yourself are essential building blocks to lifelong happiness.
By taking care of your pet—and yourself—you can both remain healthy and happy during retirement – and have fun doing it.