By PHIL ARKOW
Coordinator, the National Link Coalition
www.NationalLinkCoalition.org ● firstname.lastname@example.org ● 856-627-5118
Research into the human-animal bond confirms that pets can enhance the emotional and physical health of seniors, both in a therapeutic context and particularly in daily living. Pets can provide companionship, emotional support, daily exercise, a sense of purpose, security, and opportunities for staying social. Service animals can assist seniors who have hearing, visual or physical disabilities. Acquiring a pet can, under the right conditions, improve aging in place; where this is not feasible, animal-assisted therapy programs can bring visiting animals to seniors in long-term care, assisted living, memory units, adult day care, and other facilities.
But there is, unfortunately, also a “dark side” of the human-animal bond in which animals become the victims of cruelty, abuse and neglect when elders are involved. The result is species-spanning suffering.
Acts of animal abuse, which are crimes in themselves, also frequently indicate concurrent or future acts of interpersonal violence, abuse and neglect. The National Link Coalition calls these incidents “The Link.”
The Link was first identified with children. We have long known that children who torture animals or who witness animal abuse may expand their aggressive acts in adolescence and adulthood to target people. We also know that animal abuse and neglect may be symptoms of a child being mistreated. In recent decades, The Link has been expanded to include domestic violence: abusers target animals to coerce and control their human victims and warn them of the sad fates that will befall their beloved pets if they try to escape.
The newest area of The Link is the recognition of the association between animal abuse and elder abuse, and it takes several distinct forms:
- Animal neglect: Seniors who love their pets, but who are on fixed income or who have mobility, transportation or memory issues, may inadvertently neglect their animals.
- Self-neglect: Other seniors may spend their limited funds on their animals and neglect their own needs as a result.
- Animal hoarders: A disproportionate number of animal hoarders, who often live in unhealthy and unsafe environments, are elders.
- Deprivation of services: Seniors may not receive a full range of social and medical services because home health aides, caseworkers and caregivers may be reluctant to enter residences due to the overwhelming stench and presence of vermin, excessive numbers of animals, or dangerous pets threatening their safety.
- Pet loss and grief: The death of a beloved pet can be especially painful to a senior for whom the animal represents either a last link to a deceased spouse, or a prime opportunity for social interaction and physical exercise.
- Financial exploitation: Children have been known to hold their parents’ pets hostage to extort money from them.
- Service animals: Elders and disabled individuals who depend on service animals may find spouses or caretakers jealous of the affection shown to these important animals and ill-equipped to respond to their needs.
Link advocates nationwide are responding to these challenges:
- Adult Protective Services (APS) caseworkers are being trained to recognize that declining animal welfare is often an early warning sign of a senior’s self-neglect or animal hoarding issues.
- Collaborative programs are being established between APS and local animal control and humane agencies to provide emergency foster care for hospitalized or incapacitated seniors.
- In Colorado, an act of animal abuse intended to intimidate or punish a senior is defined as an act of elder abuse as well as animal cruelty.
Such collaborations create healthier and more humane environments for vulnerable adults and animals.
The National Link Coalition encourages state APS officials, social workers and other caregivers to take the following action steps to better protect all vulnerable members of the families they serve:
- Assess for animal welfare, the presence of dangerous animals, animal waste, pet grooming, clients eating pet food, and safety/risk-of-fall conditions during home visits.
- Identify veterinary and animal shelter support services (such as pet food banks, low-cost spay-neuter programs, pet foster care homes, pet-friendly domestic violence shelters, pet loss support lines) available in the community.
- Report suspected animal abuse to the appropriate agency in your community. Refer to the National Link Coalition’s National Directory of Abuse Investigation Agencies for your specific county or city at http://nationallinkcoalition.org/how-do-i-report-suspected-abuse
- Include pet concerns when planning for transitions: pet foster care or new homes while a client is in the hospital or long-term care. Include pets when elders are relocating to subsidized housing.
- Include pets in end-of-life planning. Alert veterinarians that requests to have all pets euthanized may suggest a client who is contemplating suicide.
- Include questions about the number, health and welfare issues, dangerousness, and veterinary support for clients’ pets in hotline, intake, interview, and assessment questionnaires.
- Treat client’s grief over pet loss as a potentially serious emotional consideration.
- Develop inter-agency Memorandums of Understanding for cross-training between APS and animal control and humane societies.
- Identify pet-friendly housing opportunities for seniors needing to relocate. Identify long-term care facilities with animal-assisted therapy visitors.
- If the client is capable, suggest acquiring a pet or volunteering at an animal shelter to gain physical exercise, social outreach, companionship, and a sense of purpose and responsibility.
- Promote state legislation mandating that animal control and APS officials cross-report abuse and neglect to each other, with immunity from civil and criminal liability.
For Further Reading:
Ansello, E.F. (2016). Animal cruelty and elder abuse. Age in Action, 31(1).
Boat, B. W., & Knight, J. C. (2000). Experiences and needs of adult protective services case managers when assisting clients who have companion animals. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 12(3/4), 145–155.
Cook-Daniels, L. (1999). The connection between animals and elder abuse. Victimization of the Elderly and Disabled, 2, 37, 46–47.
Lockwood, R.(2002). Making the connection between animal cruelty and abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults. The Latham Letter, 23(1), 10-11.
Patronek, G.J., Loar, L. & Nathanson, J.N., (Eds.) (2006). Animal Hoarding: Structuring Interdisciplinary Responses to Help People, Animals and Communities at Risk. North Grafton, MA: Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium.
Peak, T., Ascione, F.R., & Doney, J. (2012). Adult protective services and animal welfare: Should animal abuse and neglect be assessed during adult protective services screening? Journal of ElderAbuse & Neglect, 24(1), 37-49.
Rosen, B. (1995). Watch for pet abuse—it might save your client’s life. Shepard’s ElderCare/Law Newsletter, 5, 1–9