An exhibit entitled “Grow Old Along with Me: The Meaning of Dogs in Seniors’ Lives” started its tour of Nova Scotia this past weekend. On display will be photographs and stories of 14 seniors and their canine companions as studied by researcher Andra Cole.

“There are numerous initiatives to develop age-friendly communities and to help seniors ‘age in place’ and yet few, if any, of these initiatives pay attention to the role of companion animals in seniors’ health and well-being,” says Cole.

A senior woman sits on a sofa and pets her golden retriever seated at her feet
Growing Old Along with Me participant Joy, 99,  with her dog Prayer, 15, reside in Lunenburg, N.S.

The project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, with support from Mount Saint Vincent University, at which Cole is Acting Co- Dean of Education and Professor of the Graduate Program in Lifelong Learning, and ElderDog Canada, of which Cole is the founder.

She set up the national non-profit in 2009 “to assist and support seniors with the care of their dogs so that they can stay together as long as possible.” The organization will also re-home dogs if, say, their owner has to relocate to a non-dog friendly residence.

Oliver, a senior sits with his small white dog named Saffi
Grow Old Along with Me participant Oliver, 79, with his dog Saffi, 6, reside in Porter’s Lake, N.S.

From 99 year-old Joy and her 15 year-old dog Prayer (pictured above) who still go for two long walks a day because as Joy says, ‘My social life is on the street. I meet all kinds of people because of my dog,’ to an 80 year- old man who lives alone with his dog in a one-room unit of a former motel to the to a woman in her mid-60s who spends most of every day doing physical activities with her dogs because they add ‘colour and vibrancy’ to her life, Cole says each of the project participants is memorable.

“Spending time with older people and their dogs to get in-depth insights into that relationship reveals the depth of attachment and commitment seniors have to their dogs and how that relationship enhances their life and well-being.”

She notes that the documented benefits include improved heart health, better fitness, improved self-worth, increased social interaction and less social isolation.

Cole, who lives with her own four dogs in Lunenburg County, has also seen the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, first-hand. For many years she accompanied her late dog, Tattoo, in his work at palliative care centres.

Although she doesn’t discount the benefits of having pets in general, “dogs have certain qualities and ways of relating to people that set them apart,” she says. “Also, because dogs have different care needs than, say, cats or birds or fish, the relationship tends to be qualitatively different.”

The exhibit schedule includes, Old School Community Gathering Place, Musquodoboit Harbour, April 14 to 20; Lunenburg School of the Arts, Lunenburg, April 28 to May 4; St. James United Church, Goodwood, May 12 to 18; Parkland Clayton Park Cameron Hall, Halifax, May 26; Parkland at the Lakes Kinross Hall, Dartmouth, May 29.