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LOS ANGELES–As UCLA researchers went about gathering data on how care and services should be delivered to California’s poor and elderly, they stumbled upon an unexpected finding: For some, pets play a key role in keeping them healthy and happy.

That was not something researchers went looking for, asserted Kathryn Kietzman, a research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and project director of the data gathering research called The HOME (Helping Older-Adults Maintain Independence) Project. The discovery was made while they were investigating how the state could develop and sustain a network of care that would allow low-income elderly people to remain safely in their own homes.

Actually, the therapeutic effects of pets have been well documented, and there’s a growing body of scientific research on this matter. Studies published in the early 1980s found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t; that petting one’s dog could reduce blood pressure; and that interacting with pets could increase people’s level of the feel-good hormone called “oxytocin.”

The HOME study, funded by the SCAN Foundation, is monitoring 54 low-income, elderly Californians with long-term care needs over a period of four years.

The research participants, who are enrolled in both Medi-Cal (California’s name for Medicaid) and Medicare, lived in five of the eight counties where the state is launching its so-called dual-demonstration program, Cal MediConnect, which hopes to deliver care in a coordinated seamless fashion to low-income elders.

“For some of them, the relationship they have with their pets is very profound,” observed Kietzman. “We discovered pets were a big source of social support.”

HOME researchers found a 92-year-old virtually bedridden woman who depended on her dog for her emotional needs. Aside from the six hours her two caregivers spent with her each day, she was home alone the rest of the time.

The companionship of her dog, Kietzman said, was as critical to her as the phone calls she received from her three sons living out of state.

Another elderly man with severe neurological impairments was so fond of his service dog that he “talked to everyone who provided him some service” to help him raise enough money so his canine companion could have a much-needed surgery.

“He couldn’t consider life without his dog,” Kietzman said, noting that for people like him, their pets give them a reason to get out of bed.

Kietzman said that her team’s finding about pets “is a good example of why it is important to take a holistic approach to understanding and responding to the needs and preferences of this very physically, socially and financially vulnerable population.”

So when implementing Cal MediConnect, she said, health care and social service professionals need to assess the individual needs and preferences of older adults, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Fortunately, she said, the Cal MediConnect program already has in it “person-centered” language.

But it should go one step farther and take into account “the role and meaning of a pet in these individuals’ lives,” said Kietzman, noting that the HOME project findings clearly show that in addition to in-home care, transportation and easy access to health care, the elderly need a “warm-blooded companion” to keep them from feeling socially isolated. (New America Media)