Jan. 6, 2006 -- For seniors in nursing homes, loneliness may fade faster after visits from a friend that can bark but not talk.
Lonely residents of three nursing homes in St. Louis were given "animal-assisted therapy" for their loneliness. Their "therapist" was a specially trained dog.
Spending time with animals has been shown to be soothing. Studies have linked pet ownership to less stress and depression, better blood pressure, and more exercise.
In the nursing home study, seniors who spent time alone with a dog reported less loneliness than those visited by a dog while in a group with two or three other seniors.
The study is scheduled to appear in the March issue of Anthrozoos.
Send in the Dogs
"It was a strange finding," researcher William Banks, MD, says in a news release.
He and his colleagues expected that in small groups of seniors, sharing time together with a dog would spark conversations. That ought to ease loneliness more than meeting alone with a dog, the researchers reasoned.
Their prediction didn't pan out. The solo seniors showed more improvement in loneliness after spending time with a dog.
Everyone got the same amount of time with the dog -- 30 minutes per week for six weeks. Participants, most of whom were white women around 80 years old, also took before-and-after loneliness surveys.
"The residents found a little quiet time with the pooch is a lot nicer than spending time with a dog and other people," Banks says.
He and his colleagues offer a few reasons why loneliness didn't lighten as much as they predicted in the groups.
Some seniors had hearing problems, which could have hindered group conversations. Or maybe seniors in the groups already knew each other well and didn't care to chitchat, the researchers note.