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Why aged-care residents need their pets

Photo: Why aged-care residents need their pets
Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world which shows we value our animal companions. Sadly, this high prevalence isn’t reflected in residential aged care according to a study by the Animal Welfare League of Australia (AWLA).

The AWLA Pets in Aged Care Study revealed that while 63 per cent of Australian households are pet owners, only 18 per cent of residential aged care facilities allow pets to live with their owners.

Elderly Australians in their own home aren’t immune either, as the support they need to keep and care for their pet isn’t available, with just 9 per cent of in-home aged care offering pet-friendly services.

According to AWLA figures, about 7 per cent of surrenders are directly related to the requirement of aged care, but this figure is believed to be higher with issues such as unsuitable pet accommodation and lack of financial means to take care of a pet impacting the elderly. Further, an estimated 9,600 surrenders to the RSPCA were elderly-related.
Seniors moving into aged care can already feel a level of sadness due to leaving their family home, and this sense of loss can be even more profound when they need to separate from their much-loved pets, said Seasons Aged Care Chief Executive Officer Nick Loudon.

“Part of the reason that we encourage pet ownership is that when a resident is strongly bonded to their pet and the care of that pet is well-supported there are huge benefits for that resident which creates a ripple effect across to other residents and staff,” said Mr Loudon.

Tracey Silvester, Executive Manager of Envigor, and a former registered nurse in community and residential aged-care said she is passionate about ensuring our elders have the right to choose how they live regardless of their ability or function. 

“Pets can add significantly to quality of life regardless of age.

“For older people, having a pet becomes even more significant because of the living circumstances they inevitably find themselves in,” said Ms Silvester. 

Many seniors are widowed, or their family don’t live close.  They are also less likely to have a strong social network outside their home, so a pet can be their only companion, explained Ms Silvester.

“Caring for a pet can be the only reason for an older person living alone to get out of bed in the morning.  This is why leaving a pet behind if a person needs to move into residential aged care can have such a devastating impact on them.  The pet may be their only friend.”

Their pet may also be the last link they had to their old life when their spouse was still alive, said Ms Silvester.

"Forcing them to give up that pet when they move into residential aged care is cruel and unfair.”

Recent research likens the impact of loneliness on a person’s physical health to that of obesity or smoking.  Having a pet has been shown to reduce the incidence of loneliness in all age groups significantly. 

“For older people, reducing loneliness can mean the difference between a great quality of life and a life of chronic disease and frailty. 

The health benefits of pet ownership encompass mental, physical, and social factors, and the positive impact for the quality of life for an older person are many, explained Ms Silvester.

“Walking a dog, even over a short distance, encourages exercise which maintains mobility and reduces the risk of falls. 

"This exercise also increases social interaction with neighbours or other people walking their dogs. 

“This interaction, while brief, may be the only interaction that person has with another human that day and its significance cannot be underestimated.

“Seasons communities encourage people to bring their pets with them when they move in.  This means that from the minute they move in, there is a point of conversation and an opportunity to talk to their neighbours. 

“Many of our communities have informal dog walking groups, where all of the people with dogs meet regularly to walk their dogs together.  This provides both the dog and the human the opportunity to socialise,” said Ms Silvester.

Aged care resident of Seasons Aged Care, Faye Bunker, said she enjoys walking her dog Jackie to get fresh air and her dog laps up the attention he receives from neighbours and staff.

Ms Bunker says leaving her beloved dog Jackie behind when she moved into aged care was not an option she was willing to consider.

“I didn’t want to leave my own home,” said Ms Bunker, “but now I call Seasons home because I have Jackie with me.”

Sarah Breen, Lifestyle Manager at Lutheran Services Aged Care, said having pets in the community makes residents feel at home.

“People’s faces light up when they interact with pets – whether it’s dogs, cats or birds.

“There is one lady who chooses to stay in her room a fair bit and Maude the cat always visits, and they share a pat and affection.

“I think pets are wonderful company for older people, certainly for those living in aged care, and it’s partly the company and the sensory experience which residents respond to,” said Ms Breen.

Social worker, Jennifer Gavshon, of Group Homes Australia, agreed, saying that we offer our elders the opportunity to stay in their own home, accommodate partners, and bring treasured possessions, so why not value the relationship they have with their pet?

“Why disrupt more than has to be disrupted in a person's life? Leaving home and suffering from dementia is huge and we don’t want to impact even more by separating them from their beloved pets.

“Pets are often where our residents can express their care and love and their need to look after something in a tangible, sometimes nonverbal way.

“The good feeling of looking after and being close to and caring for a pet has a ripple ‘feel’  effect,” said Ms Gavshon.

Benefits of pet-friendly aged care services

Aged care services that support and encourage pet ownership may be in the minority, but the health benefits for seniors is well documented.
  • Eases the transition to aged care
  • Reduces feelings of loneliness
  • Health benefits include reduced stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and increased aerobic activity
  • Higher uptake of aged care services due to not having to surrender their much-loved pet
  • Reduces animal surrender rates to shelters
  • Helps increase feelings of independence
  • Boosts morale and happiness for both staff and residents

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.