Donna Zimmerman made an unexpected new friend as she moved into her room at Ecumen in Detroit Lakes late last summer: Mort, a big, chummy, black-and-white cat.

Mort greeted Zimmerman and her family at the door of the senior housing center on move-in day and proceeded to rub up against their legs and meow for scratches while they unloaded and unpacked boxes. Then, apparently tired from watching them do all that hard work, he made himself comfy and fell asleep, right on Zimmerman’s bed.

She didn’t mind it one bit.

“I’ve always loved cats,” Zimmerman said with a smile Monday. Having Mort there that first day felt “just like a personal reception” for her.

Cats remind Zimmerman of her late husband and the life they spent together on their farm. He was a cat-lover, too, she fondly recalled, and they always had at least one fine feline running around the farm.

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Cats bring back good memories for her. They provide entertainment. They’re a source of comfort.

The same can be said for a lot of the residents at Ecumen — and the whole senior population in general. Research has shown that seniors benefit from the companionship and affection of pets in many ways

A quick Google search for “the health benefits of pets for seniors” pulls up 466 million results. Commonly cited benefits address both mental and physical health: Animals can help reduce stress, for example, as well as lower blood pressure. They’re also shown to lead to increased social interaction and physical activity.

Zodiak, relaxing at Ecumen on Monday, Jan. 13. His job at the assisted living and senior housing center, said Ecumen Executive Director Danielle Olson, "is to provide comfort to those who like him.” (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
Zodiak, relaxing at Ecumen on Monday, Jan. 13. His job at the assisted living and senior housing center, said Ecumen Executive Director Danielle Olson, "is to provide comfort to those who like him.” (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

Karin Haugrud, of the Fergus Falls-based Land of the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging, recently submitted information on this topic to the Tribune.

“Doctors, social workers and other health care professionals believe companion animals are important in helping many people lead healthy, happy lives, especially elderly people,” Haugrud stated. “Many researchers are finding that the most serious disease for older persons is not cancer or heart disease — it's loneliness. Love is one of the most important health tonics we have, and pets are one of nature's best sources of love.”

In addition to supplying companionship and affection, animals can also supply a sense of security and protection, she added. Pets make people laugh and divert their minds away from troubles. They also tend to broaden a person’s circle of friends and, through play and walks, encourage better health through exercise. Some pet programs at nursing homes are credited with enabling patients to reach out beyond their own pain and isolation and start caring about the world around them again.

“What we know, industry-wide, is that pets offer a little bit more comfort to our residents,” said Danielle Olson, executive director of Ecumen. “A lot of people had pets when they were at home, and that’s one of the things they miss when they come here.”

Ecumen welcomes visiting pets, and is a part-time home to Mort, who lives with an Ecumen employee but sometimes visits the campus during the day, and a full-time home to Zodiak, a live-in cat. Since Ecumen’s multiple buildings are all connected, the cats are able to wander from place to place, visiting whomever they want, whenever they want.

“He might be at the nursing home for a short period of time, then to adult day services, then he might go over to one of the apartment buildings, and then he makes his way back,” Olson said of Zodiak. “His job is to provide comfort to those who like him.”

Ecumen adopted Zodiak from the Marshmallow Foundation animal shelter in the fall of 2018. Since then, several residents have volunteered to help take care of him, feeding him and cleaning his litter box. Some try to lure him to their rooms for extra cuddle time by leaving little treats, water and toys outside their doors.

“Sometimes taking a little bit of ownership is something our residents appreciate,” Olson said.

She described Zodiak as “a very fun personality of a cat” who “really brings a lot of smiles and joy to people.”

While he’s independent and likes to wander all over at his own pace, he seems to have a good sense of where he’s most wanted — and needed, she said. And Mort is the same way.

“We’ve had a lot of people at the end of life who have had a visit from one of the cats,” Olson said. “They’ve said the cat went in and crawled into their bed with them and really provided a lot of peace and comfort. That’s come up a number of times in the last few months. The cat senses that there's a change and provides comfort to the family and the residents.”

Health benefits of pets for seniors

  • Better relaxation

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Less chance of depression and loneliness

  • Increased physical activity

  • Increased social interaction

  • Improved memory recall

  • Eased anxiety and pain

  • Longer life

Compiled from various sources, including

Things seniors should consider before getting a pet

  • Caring for an animal takes dedication. Be sure you have the time and means to take care of an animal, both physically and financially.

  • Think about which kind of pet would be best for you. Animal care professionals often advise seniors to consider adopting an adult dog or cat. An older animal may be a better fit for your lifestyle than a puppy or kitten.

  • Don't take a pet because someone else feels you should have one.

  • Don't let well-meaning but overly protective friends or relatives convince you that you should not have a pet. You know better then anyone else what you want and what your abilities are.

Info from the Land of the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging