I love animals, especially dogs and cats. My husband and I have two dogs and two cats that we rescued and they are truly part of our family.

Our two beagles, Joy and Girlie, greet me every morning with half smiles. In the evening, after a long day of playing and eating, they crawl into their beds and sigh happily before dozing off for the evening.

I have had these two girls for about 14 years. They love their cat siblings, Sweetie and Boo, and the four of these sweet creatures help balance me after a long day at Memory Matters. Who can be sad when greeted each night with such devotion?

Now admittedly, it could have a little to do with a dog treat, but for the most part they have just missed the heck out of me.

So why am I telling you about my pets? This week one of our staff members lost her sweet dog of 13 years. It reminded me of the importance of animals in people’s lives.

In support group last week, we all had a conversation about our fur babies and before we knew it, everyone in the group had pulled out pictures of cats and dogs.

One man had just lost his dog, but he told us the funniest stories about him. He honestly felt that the loss of the dog contributed to the advancement of his wife’s Alzheimer’s. He had to place her in a facility shortly thereafter.

Another caregiver told me that each evening her cat snuggles up in her lap as if to say, “I love you and everything will be OK.”

For elderly pet owners, who often live alone, pets can help reduce stress, increase social interaction and physical activity. Pets also provide other intangibles.

“Dogs and other pets live very much in the here and now,” said Dr. Jay P. Granat, a New Jersey psychotherapist. “They don’t worry about tomorrow. And tomorrow can be very scary for an older person. Having an animal with that sense of now, tends to rub off on people.”

Having pets also lessens loneliness. “Older pet owners have often told us how incredibly barren and lonely their lives were without their pet’s companionship, even when there were some downsides to owning an active pet,” said Linda Anderson, who with her husband, Allen, founded the Angel Animals Network in Minneapolis.

What should someone consider before owning a pet? Remember, this is a big decision.

Are you set in your ways? If so, you might not be a good candidate for an animal.

Does the pet have a good temperament? Small dogs are not always the right choice if they are very high energy and require more attention than an older, larger dog.

Do you have disabilities? Dogs can be great to encourage a senior with no major disabilities to get up and move, but if the senior has mobility issues, a cat might be a better option.

There are so many animals in our area that need good homes. Dogs, cats and seniors can make great partnerships.

Palmetto Animal League (www.palmettoanimalleague.org) and Hilton Head Humane Society (www.hhhumane.org) are great places to start. Have fun finding a new friend.

Karen Doughtie is assistant director of Memory Matters, serving Bluffton and Hilton Head. karen@memory-matters.org