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Pets and Parenthood Help Women Cope with HIV


Identification with their role as a mother, grandmother, or pet owner helped women with HIV cope with having a chronic disease, according to a study published in the January 2012 online edition of Women's Health Issues.

Allison Webel and Patricia Higgins from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing Researchers at Case Western Reserve University conducted focus groups with 48 mostly middle-aged, mostly African-American HIV-positive women in Ohio, looking at their social roles and how they relate to self-management of HIV/AIDS.

The analysis found that women identify with 6 social roles that affect their self-management: mother/grandmother, believer, advocate, stigmatized patient, pet owner, and employee. While the benefits of identifying as a mother or grandmother were expected, the researchers also found an unexpected benefit of animal companionship.

"Women living with HIV/AIDS struggle to manage the many daily tasks required to live well with this disease," the study authors concluded. "The social context in which this self-management happens is important, and the various social roles that women perform can facilitate or hinder them from completing these tasks. Healthcare and social service providers should learn about these roles in their individual patients, particularly how these roles can be developed to increase HIV/AIDS self-management."

Below is an edited excerpt from a press release issued by Case Western Reserve University describing the study and its findings in more detail.

Study Finds a Pet’s Love Helps Women Cope with HIV/AIDS

A spoonful of medicine goes down a lot easier if there is a dog or cat around. Having pets is helpful for women living with HIV/AIDS and managing their chronic illness, according to a new study from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University.

“We think this finding about pets can apply to women managing other chronic illnesses,” said Allison R. Webel, instructor of nursing and lead author of the article, “The Relationship Between Social Roles and Self-Management Behavior in Women Living with HIV/AIDS,” which appears in the online journal Women’s Health Issues.

Webel set out to better understand how women manage their HIV/AIDS and stay on track to take their medications, follow doctors’ orders and live healthy lifestyles. She conducted 12 focus groups with 48 women to find out what they did to stay healthy. The women had an average age of 42, about 90 percent had children, and more than half were single.

During the focus groups, six predominant social roles emerged that helped and hindered these women in managing their illness: pet owner, mother/grandmother, faith believer, advocate, stigmatized patient, and employee. All roles had a positive impact except stigmatized patient, which prevented women from revealing their illness and seeking out appropriate supports.

“Much information is available about the impact of work and family roles, but little is known about other social roles that women assume,” Webel said.

Being a pet owner was an important surprise, added Webel, who collaborated with co-author Patricia Higgins, a professor of nursing at Case Western Reserve University.

“Pets -- primarily dogs -- gave these women a sense of support and pleasure,” Webel said.

When discussing the effect their pets have on their lives, the women weighed in. “She’s going to be right there when I’m hurting,” a cat owner said. Another said: “Dogs know when you’re in a bad mood...she knows that I’m sick, and everywhere I go, she goes. She wants to protect me.”

The human and animal bond in healing and therapy is being recognized, Webel said, as more animals are visiting nursing homes to connect to people with dementia or hospitals to visit children with long hospital stays.

Being a pet owner is just one social aspect of these women’s lives. “We found the social context in which this self-management happens is important,” Webel said.

Another strong role to emerge was advocate. Participants wanted to give back and help stop others from engaging in activities that might make them sick, the researchers report.

While roles as mothers and workers are well documented, “less-defined social roles also have a positive impact on self-management of their chronic illness,” Webel said.

Investigator affiliations: Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio



AR Webel and PA Higgins. The Relationship Between Social Roles and Self-Management Behavior in Women Living with HIV/AIDS. Women's Health Issues 22(1):e27-e33. January 2012.

Other Source

Case Western Reserve University. Study Finds a Pet’s Love Helps Women Cope with HIV/AIDS. Press release. January 24, 2012.