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A stray Jack Russell terrier wandered into my mother-in-law’s driveway one Christmas and quickly made a home in her heart. Mom loved having “a furry child” by her side to keep her company throughout the day. She named the dog Joy, which is exactly what the animal brought for more than a decade, comforting Mom through the death of two husbands.
Joy – like most cats and dogs – was very in tune with her owners’ feelings. Pets sense when someone is upset or unhappy and are excellent at providing instant comfort.
She also was a great protector, barking at any perceived threat. Having a dog made my mother-in-law feel safer in her home and may have allowed her to stay there, longer.
Studies have found that owning pets provides health benefits, too, including decreased blood pressure and cholesterol. Even heart attack survivors are more likely to live longer if they have a pet to keep them company. Joy motivated Mom to go outside for walks, which also afforded her a social life as she chatted with other pet parents in the neighborhood.
Yet in addition to being a companion, pets are a responsibility. So when her beloved Joy recently died, my mother-in-law decided not to get another dog. Though having the house to herself seems a little daunting, the 91-year-old admits that she can no longer care for an animal.
Sadly, I am relieved.
Pets need as much love and attention as a child, and eventually that may be too much for an elderly parent to manage. What happens when a pet outlives its owner? Who inherits the animal? Shelters are filled with the sad, sweet faces of pets whose owners passed away. How do adult children plan for the inevitable, with pets and aging parents?

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