Because many of them are considered to be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, the ongoing pandemic has cut off a lot of elderly people from the people, places and things that were once part of their everyday lives.
Beeville resident Esther Martinez, 67, has been kept away from those she considers “family at the La Amistad Adult Care and Activity Center. Her feelings of loneliness and despair have been amplified by a string of personal tragedies over the past year that include the death last year of her daughter and of her sister on New Year’s Day. Then in July, her husband of 18 years, Nieves Botello lost his fight with cancer.
“It was just like everything on one year,” Martinez said.
But in the midst of her despair, Martinez’s help came in the form of a 4-pound Chihuahua named Roxie, whom she has had for 14 years.
“I went through a deep depression when (Nieves) passed away and she knew right away,” Martinez said. “She would follow me everywhere because I was hurting.”
Roxie has expressed empathy for both Martinez and her late husband.
“When she knew that her daddy was sick, she had tears in her eyes,” she said. “When she saw me crying, she had tears in her eyes.”
Prior to being given Roxie by a friend, Martinez said she had never owned a dog or even considered herself an animal lover. In fact, she briefly gave away her four-legged friend because it seemed like Roxie could not be housebroken. But Martinez quickly realized she had fallen in love with the tiny black and white dog and reclaimed her the next day.
“I cried all night,” Martinez said. “When she gets sick, I take her to the vet and I don’t care how much it costs. I can’t say anything bad about her; nothing.”
In addition to the love and companionship that manifests itself in Roxie hopping up on the sofa and snuggling up to Martinez for kisses, or sleeping in the bed with her at night, the dog also has provided protection for Martinez.
“I have my provider who comes here to see me and there have been times I have fallen in the restroom,” she said. “The provider would have a key and she would come in and Roxie would let her know that I’m in the restroom.”
And like most Chihuahuas, Roxie barks whenever there is a knock at the door or when the telephone rings, Martinez said. She also is protective of her owner.
“You can’t get near me or anything or she thinks you’re going to hurt me,” she said.
Professor Kelly Rea, who is the division coordinator of the Social & Behavioral Sciences department and professor of psychology and sociology at Coastal Bend College said that particularly for senior citizens who live alone, pet ownership could benefit mental and physical health.
“Pets provide security, safety, social inclusion and participation,” Rea said.
For instance, dogs require interaction and walking, which means their owners have to get outside a few times each day.
“It gets you out, off the couch and off the bed and you feel useful,” Rea said. “Feeling needed breaks down barriers of conflict and gives us structure. Instead of not wanting to do anything, (pet owners) got to get up and have a routine.”
A four-legged friend could be an ally against the social isolation that has a tendency to create loneliness that can lead to anxiety, depression, stress, alcoholism and suicidal thoughts.
“Social isolation is one of the main factors in suicide risks and attempts,” Rea said. “Isolation comes from the lack of connectedness to other people.
“Humans are social creatures. We need people. We need to be around people. We need interactions, eye contact.”
Because mental wellbeing is linked to physical health, loneliness and isolation can weaken the immune system and lead to life-threatening conditions such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular illness, she said.
The City of Beeville Animal Shelter is one place where elderly city residents can find a friend with whom to ride out the pandemic. Adopting a dog or cat costs just $20, after which the owner is responsible to coordinate with a veterinarian for sterilization and vaccinations. Adoption and Rescue Coordinator Raquel Martinez said seniors who come in search of a dog usually seek one that weighs under 20 pounds.
“We try to find them the right type of dog, one that’s not too hyper,” said Animal Control Supervisor Lupe Valdez.
As with anyone who inquires about adopting a dog or cat, he suggests the prospective owner should visit the shelter and spend time with the animal. If they have another pet, Valdez said they should come along for the journey to see how they will get along with the potential newcomer.
“I tell people, when they get a dog and adopt them, they often don’t give enough time to get used to the new environment,” he said. “Sometimes, it can take five to six months.”
Rea acknowledges that a dog or cat might not be the best fit for every senior. Those who cannot handle the maintenance of a four-legged friend might instead try from fish or birds, she said.
“Family should also make sure to have a contingency plan in place in case something happens to the elderly person – such as death, hospitalization or being placed in a nursing home,” Rea said. “If something happens to the pet, they also have to be ready to provide grieving support to that elderly person who lost a pet.”
Not everyone is able to have a pet. Those in geriatric facilities, where pets are not allowed, could benefit from being able to hold a stuffed toy animal or having a robotic pet. Placing a bird feeder in the yard also could provide enjoyment.