The Best Pets for Seniors

by Robyn Tellefsen
Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, a bird person or a fish person, there’s a pet for every personality. Pets can be an excellent investment for people of all ages – particularly for seniors seeking companionship.
But which pet is right for you? With the help of Suzette Brown, author of Alzheimer’s: Through My Mother’s Eyes and owner of Flower, a certified therapy dog, we break down the primary senior pet options.
Dogs for Seniors

Pros: Love, comfort, and companionship are some of the biggest benefits of owning a dog, says Brown. “The right dog provides both the owner and the dog years of happiness together.” Plus, dogs can warn you when someone is at the door, or if the person you meet is of questionable character, she says. And, of course, dog-walking is a great way to keep seniors moving.
Cons: Breeds like Border Collies, which require a great deal of exercise, would not be a good fit for seniors, says Brown. “If the senior is not mobile and the dog is housebound day after day, it will cause a great deal of anxiety for the dog. Behavior problems could ensue.” The best dogs for seniors are those that are compatible with their lifestyle: Brown recommends smaller dogs.
Cost: Costs vary depending on breed and location. “If the senior wants a certain breed (such as a poodle, Labrador, or beagle), these dogs can get quite expensive – particularly if they are American Kennel Club registered animals,” says Brown. She “lucked out” by purchasing her German shepherd puppy, Jax, from a breeder for $350. Another great place to buy a dog is a rescue organization; the cost of Brown’s rescue dog was about $250, which included neutering, shots, and care. Take a look at this helpful chart from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to anticipate the annual costs of pet care.
Fun fact: “There are many shelters that have senior dogs looking for a loving home to live out the last few years of their lives,” says Brown. “The shelter dogs are grateful to be given a chance with a loving and caring family.”
Cats for Seniors

Pros: Cats are low-maintenance pets and can be wonderful companions for seniors, says Brown. “Cats are independent creatures, but they can become very attached to their owners. They are easy to take care of and are always open to a warm lap. The soft whirr of their purring is a joyful noise that lets seniors know they are not alone in their home.”
Cons: “The biggest concern is the sanitary cleaning of the litter box and making sure the litter box is located in a bathroom that is accessible to the cat,” says Brown. Plus, some cats shed considerably, which could be a problem for allergy sufferers.
Cost: Cat rescues as well as SPCA rescues offer low-cost options for a feline companion. According to, adopting a cat from a shelter usually costs between $50 and $100, while buying a cat from a breeder usually costs between $300 and $1,200, depending on the breed and color.
Fun fact: Sometimes cats have all the wonderful traits of dogs. In fact, Brown says that her cat, who lived for about 16 years, was more like a small dog than a cat. “Sniffles followed me everywhere and kept track of my movements. He knew when I was upset, tired, or frustrated. He would come and lay right beside me and offer me his paw. He was a wonderful companion while I lived in an apartment.”
Birds for Seniors

Pros: Because I’m allergic to cats and dogs, birds are the perfect pets for my family. Our parakeets have brought songs, companionship, and playfulness to our home. At my grandmother’s nursing home, a lovebird graces the rec room, providing beauty and stimulation for residents. I often marvel at the unbelievably intricate details of our feathered friends.
Cons: Though birds are fairly low maintenance, if you let them fly out of the cage, you have to be diligent about cleaning up their droppings around the house. Larger birds like parrots tend to be louder, so if you’re put off by all the chatter, a smaller bird like a parakeet would be a better fit.
Cost: Birds typically cost more than fish but less than cats and dogs. We paid $20 for our parakeet at the pet store, and the cost of food is minimal. According to, finches usually cost between $10 and $35, canaries typically run between $40 and $125, and larger birds cost several hundred dollars.
Fun fact: According to the children’s book Bird, the most talkative bird in the world is the African gray parrot. While most species of parrots can learn about 50 words, the African gray parrot can say more than 800 words.
Fish for Seniors

Pros: “Fish are beautiful to watch in their habitat,” says Brown. “They bring a sense of calmness as their motions are exhibited in swimming. They are fairly easy to take care of, and there are many stunning varieties to choose from.”
Cons: “I got tired of cleaning out the fish bowl,” admits Brown. “They are self-contained pets, but they still have needs.” Plus, she points out that fish don’t live very long, and you have to be careful to match your fish correctly so they maintain a balance in the tank. For example, one betta fish is OK, but if you put two or more together, they will fight and literally kill each other.
Cost: Basic freshwater fish like goldfish, guppies, and bettas are very inexpensive – less than $10 each, reports Fancier saltwater fish like clownfish, yellow tang, and blue tang cost more ($15 to $80), but they may also live longer and provide more enjoyment for the owner.
Fun fact: Speaking of clownfish, did you know that they can change their sex? According to Fishes: The Animal Answer Guide, anemone fish live in groups where only the two largest fish are sexually mature – the largest is female and the next largest is male. If the female dies, the male changes sex to female, and the next largest fish in the group matures to male. So if “Finding Nemo” had stuck to the facts of nature, Nemo’s dad, Marlin, would have become Nemo’s mom after his original mother was eaten by a barracuda. Fascinating, right?
No matter which pet you choose, the benefits of furry, feathery, or scaly companionship cannot be overstated.
“It is delightful to come home to loving animals who miss you when you are gone,” says Brown. “Kisses and cries of being missed melt my heart.”


My old-school baked ziti

The night before I went to the hospital to have this little nugget, in one last burst of frenetic nesting — a tornado of focused, effective energy I sorely miss in these early months — I decided to do something so practical, I’m still patting myself on the back for it: I made a big volume of lazy baked ziti and divide it into three dishes, two that went into the freezer. I have not been this productive or effective since.

I’ve said this before, but there’s honestly very little reason you need to cook in New York City. You can get everything and anything you want, even healthier fare, delivered hot, often at a reasonable price with no advanced planning. So, if you’re going to be crazy like me and cook, you’ve got to have another reason to do it. Previously, I’d made the argument that a really great reason to do so is out of inherent persnicketiness; to pick the dish nobody else makes the way you like it and set out to master it at home, so you can eat what you want most of all. But upon coming home from the hospital with this easily-reheated, unequivocally comforting and loved by the whole family dish in the freezer, I found a new reason: normalcy. Sure, we’d upended my son’s life with an invader, sure, nothing would ever be exactly the same again, but there we were, sitting at the same table with the same people at 6 p.m. a few days after she was born, eating the same food we had a few days before she was born, and it kind of felt like we might just pull this whole thing off. (And we did again! Like, two months later, oof.)

For someone with a lot of opinions about baked ziti — down with baked ricotta! down with jarred sauce! — it’s rather rude that I’ve never shared the version I make when I actually make it. It’s spectacularly simple and lazy, just like me most nights, and it makes what always feels like a truckload, if a truckload = definitely three dinners for three nights for three people, and then some. It’s not hideously rich, nor is it abstemious. It’s quite flexible, should you choose to opt out of meat and add more vegetables. And while I still have not come around to the idea of baking ricotta into a pasta dish — the texture, it gets weird, I just can’t — I absolutely adore having a great big dollop on the side, cold, fresh and slightly rich, the way it was always meant to be.* But enough about the practicality, the texture, the greens and all the feels, let’s talk about what really matters: how are the corners? Tell me about the edges! And the answer is: I will not. I do not share them, so don’t even ask.

My Old-School Baked Ziti

A few notes: To make this without meat, as I’m not personally into meat substitutes, I would use a pound or so of sliced mushrooms instead to make this vegetarian. To freeze, you can freeze this unbaked and once defrosted, bake it in the oven as directed. You could also freeze it after baking, and just defrost and rewarm it, but that leads to softer noodles because they get warmed/cooked an extra time. Finally, if you really really like those crispy edges (I do!), I find if you use a round or oval dish and ziti noodles (with straight ends) vs. penne noodles (which usually have angled ends), it especially leaves jagged edges, more prone to crisping. It also helps to just pour the pasta mix into the dish, not press it into the corners.

Glug of olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped small
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground beef or Italian sausage, casings removed
28-ounce can whole tomatoes with juices, chopped by you, or crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Red pepper flakes, to taste
1 pound pasta, cooked al dente and drained
3/4 pound mozzarella, coarsely grated
2/3 cup finely grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
1/4 pound (4 ounces) baby spinach or a few handfuls of another green, cut into thin ribbons
To serve: Dollops of your favorite ricotta and slivers of basil leaves, if desired

Heat oven to 400 degrees F.

Cook pasta until quite al dente, or 2 minutes less than the suggested cooking time. (Please. It will keep cooking in the sauce, then in the oven and mushy pasta makes me sad.) Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water, then drain pasta.

Heat large sauté pan — if yours is ovenproof, you can even use it as you final baking vessel — over medium heat. Coat with glug of olive oil, and heat oil. Add meat and cook with onion, garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, and salt over medium-high heat for 6 to 8 minutes or until meat is browned; stirring frequently. If you’re using plain ground beef versus sausage meat, you’re going to really want to season this well. Don’t be shy with the salt and pepper.

Add crushed tomatoes and stir to combine. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. If it’s become quite thick, stir in reserved pasta water. Add spinach and cook until wilted, just another minute. Stir in drained pasta and heat together for one minute.

Pour half of pasta mixture into a 9×13-inch baking dish, lasagna pan, or other 3-quart baking vessel (or divide among smaller ones, if you’d like to freeze some off). Sprinkle with half of each cheese. Pour remaining pasta and sauce over, and finish with remaining cheese. Bake in heated oven for 30 minutes.

If you wish, you can run the dish under your broiler for a minute or two for an extra-bronzed lid right before serving.

How to Talk to Your Elderly Parent About the Dangers of Falling

by Jim T. Miller
Watching an elderly parent’s health decline is never easy, but for many adult children, like Patty Cicione of Norton, Mass., having conversations about a parent’s vulnerabilities, health and well-being in their later years can be equally difficult.

“Mom was 74 years old, living alone in the two-story house that she had built 50 years earlier with my dad,” Cicione said.

She was becoming frail, forgetful and increasingly unsteady on her feet. I was worried that if she fell and broke a hip or something else, she might never recover or end up in a nursing home for the rest of her life.
And to make matters worse, every time I tried to talk to her about what we could do to help keep her safe, she shut down and didn’t want to talk about it.
It’s an unfortunate reality, but every year, one in three older Americans fall, making it the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries for seniors age 65 and older.

A simple fall can cause a serious hip fracture, broken bone or head injury, which can lead to hospital stays, disability, loss of independence and even death. But even falls without a major injury can cause seniors to become fearful or depressed, making it difficult for them to stay active.

If you have concerns about an aging parent or other loved one’s risk of falling, have a talk with them and offer your support. Most falls can be prevented and injuries averted with just a few simple preventative steps.

If you need help broaching this sometimes-difficult topic with your parent, use this article as a prompter, and consider the following tips.

Start by taking the time to sit down and have a thoughtful, direct conversation, and if you have siblings, consider getting them involved too, so your parent will know everyone in the family is concerned.

Tell your parent that even though they are okay now, you’re worried about their future safety if they were to fall and injure themselves and no one was around to help.

And, let them know the unsettling statistic that nearly 30 percent of U.S. seniors who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries that can make it hard to get around or live independently in their own home, and can increase their risk of an early death.

Be respectful with your comments, and try to avoid being bossy or over dramatic. And listen to your parent’s thoughts, concerns or fears that they express.

If you need some help, contact your parent’s doctor to see if they could examine your mom or dad and talk to them about falls. Many seniors will often listen to their doctor before they will listen to their own family.

After you get your parent’s attention, here are six tips your parent and you can implement that can help keep them safe.

Start exercising: Weak leg muscles and poor balance are two of the biggest risk factors that cause seniors to fall. Tai chi, walking, water aerobics and strength training are all good for improving balance and strength, as are a number of simple balance exercises that your parent can do anytime, like standing on one foot for 30 seconds then switching to the other foot, and walking heel-to-toe across the room.

or additional balance and leg strengthening exercises, the National Institute on Aging offers free exercise guides and a DVD that you can order at, or call at 800-222-2225.

Review medications: Does your parent take any medicine or combination of medicines that make him or her dizzy, sleepy or lightheaded? If so, gather up all the drugs they take — prescriptions and over-the-counter — and take them to their doctor or pharmacist for a drug review and adjustment.

Note that many blood pressure medications, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, antipsychotic drugs, diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, some painkillers and over-the-counter drugs that cause drowsiness are common culprits in medication-related falls.

Get an eye exam: Poor vision can be another contributor to falls, so get your parent’s eyes checked every year. They may be wearing the wrong glasses or have developed a condition such as glaucoma or cataracts that make it harder to see obstacles on the floor.

Your parent should also wear single-vision glasses while out on walks, because bifocal and progressive lenses can make depth perception more difficult and cause missteps.

Modify their home: There are also a number of simple household modifications you can do to make your parent’s living area safer.

Start by arranging or moving the furniture so there are clear pathways to walk through, and by picking up items on the floor that could cause him or her to trip, like newspapers, shoes, clothes, electrical or phone cords.

If they have throw rugs, remove them or use double-sided tape to secure them.

In the bathroom, buy some non-skid rugs for the floors, and a rubber suction-grip mat or adhesive non-skid tape for the floor of the tub or shower to prevent slipping, and have a carpenter install grab bars in and around the tub/shower and near the toilet for support. For even greater safety, purchase a shower chair and install a hand-held shower so your parent can bathe from a seated position.

Also, increase lighting throughout the house, and purchase some plug-in night lights for the bathrooms, hallways and stairways that automatically turn on when it’s dark. And if your parent has stairs, put handrails on both sides.

For more tips, the Eldercare Locater offers a Preventing Falls at Home brochure that provides a room-by-room checklist. Or, get an occupational therapist to come in and assess their home for fall risks. Medicare will pay for this service if prescribed by a doctor.

Choose safe footwear: Your parent should be aware that going barefoot or wearing slippers or socks at home can also cause falls, as can wearing backless shoes, high-heels, and shoes with smooth leather soles. The safest option are rubber-soled, low-heeled shoes that fit well and support their feet.

Purchase some helpful aids: If your parent needs some help with balance or walking, talk to their doctor or a physical therapist about getting fit for a cane or walker.

Some other helpful aids include a reacher-grabber tool that lets your parent retrieve lightweight items from high shelves, and pick up objects off the floor so they don’t have to bend over. And a cordless phone that they could carry around from room to room, so when the phone rings they don’t have to rush to answer it, therefore averting a fall.

It’s also important to realize that even with all these preventative measures, not all falls can be prevented. To help ensure your parent’s safety, and provide you some peace of mind, consider getting them a medical alert device.

This is a wearable pendent button — usually in the form of a necklace pendent, wristband or belt clip — so if your parent were to fall or need assistance, at the press of a button, they could call and talk to a trained operator who would find out what’s wrong, and notify family members, a neighbor, friend or emergency services as needed.

Bay Alarm Medical offers some the most affordable medical alert devices on the market today that provides help at home and away from home. Costs range between $22 and $30 per month.