The Value of Companionship to Seniors

How the companionship of small birds decreased prescriptions by half.

Our Story at Obi Helpers
Social isolation and loneliness are estimated to reduce a person’s lifespan by up to 15 years, akin to the health impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day (2). It increases the risk of being admitted to a nursing home or emergency room, heart disease, mental health disorders, premature mortality, and many other serious conditions. This information is especially concerning when you recognize how many seniors in the US are living alone and as a result, are socially isolated. 27% of adults aged 60 and older live alone in the United States, a figure nearly double that in other countries studied (1). These seniors live alone for a variety of reasons like divorce, widowhood, distance families, and the more common practice of not starting a family.

In light of this, I’d like to introduce an innovative approach pioneered in the ’90s by Dr. William Thomas, a Harvard-educated physician and then newly appointed Medical Director at Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New York. He noticed the pervasive boredom, loneliness, and helplessness among residents and theorized that the facility lacked life in the literal sense. His solution, known as The Eden Alternative, involved introducing animals, plants, and more to the nursing home. Like the namesake of the project, he wanted to transform the home into a vibrant, life-filled environment akin to the biblical Garden of Eden.

His request to the state board was unprecedented: two dogs, four cats, a hundred birds, plants in every room, and a new garden. At the time state regulations only allowed nursing homes either one dog or one cat. Despite this and skepticism, the proposal was given an exemption and approved. The results, as documented by Atul Gawande in ‘Being Mortal’, were remarkable:

“‘People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking,’ Thomas Said. ‘People who had been completely withdrawn and non-ambulatory started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’ All the parakeets were adopted and named by the residents. The lights were turned back on in people’s eyes. (3)”

“Researchers studied the effects of this program over two years, comparing a variety of measures for Chase’s residents with those of residents at another nursing home nearby. Their study found that the number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half that of the control nursing home. Psychotropic drugs for agitation, like Haldol, decreased in particular. The total drug costs fell to just 38 percent of the comparison facility. Deaths fell 15 percent. (3)”

This experiment underscored the health benefits seniors experience when they have living beings to care for, providing them with a sense of purpose and connection. What these results show is a reversal of the effects of social isolation and loneliness mentioned above. When the birds and animals are introduced and people are no longer isolated their health improves significantly.

These results highlight the importance of companionship for seniors. Even having just a small bird to share life with and care for had a tremendous impact on the quality of life for seniors. More impactful than just small birds is the introduction of other humans for the senior to care for. This is one of the reasons some Eden Alternative homes have opened childcare and after-school programs on their properties. These programs allow for the seniors to be involved in caring for and spending time with children.

How can we apply this information to seniors who are isolated in their own homes? Well unless they want to start a childcare service in their living room we suggest you find them a housemate.

79% of households headed by someone 60+ have one or more spare bedrooms. The longevity and consistency of a roommate is a great environment for companionship. There is constant interaction each day, easy opportunities to share meals and watch a movie together and as most housing contracts are for many months or a year the length of the relationship is a long-term solution. For isolated seniors, the introduction of a housemate can significantly enhance their life quality.

Three main services allow you to find a housemate in Austin who can provide consistent companionship for the senior.

Obi Helpers – this service enables seniors to exchange a spare bedroom in their home for assistance with household tasks and errands. This service is best for seniors who could benefit from assistance with tasks like meal preparation, transportation, or light housekeeping in addition to companionship.

SIS Homesharing – this service is designed to help seniors find roommates they can enjoy life with. It is best for seniors who could benefit from both rental income and companionship. – you can also try typical roommate posting sites. Similar to Craiglists you can post on this marketplace and try to attract interested roommates.


Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (p. 123). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.