Pets are often a popular feature in retirement villages around the country with many recognising the benefits for older people.
Research has shown that pets are beneficial for the elderly as they can bring joy, help with loneliness and enable people to feel valued.
And now Dr Janette Young, a researcher from the University of South Australia, has called for more aged care homes to allow their residents to keep pets. She made a formal submission to Australia’s aged care royal commission, calling on more homes to be accepting of animals in a country where one in two over 65s keep pets.
Young pointed to the many health benefits of having a pet and said that for people in aged care pets can provide companionship, social interaction and a sense of purpose that may otherwise be lacking.
“While 64 per cent of Australian households have a pet, a 2018 Animal Welfare League report found that only 18 per cent of residential aged care facilities allowed residents to live with a pet,” Young told Austalian INsite. “This is despite all the evidence showing how important the human-animal bond is to people, perhaps even more so as they age.”
Many aged care facilities provide pet therapy or have robotic therapy animals, but Young said this ignores the bond that occurs between an owner and their pet.
Here in New Zealand, Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace said pets are a welcome addition to many rest homes and private hospitals.
“They add something special (emotional and physical wellbeing/support) to enrich residents lives.”
Some rest homes even have a cat that can go into residents’ rooms and others keep dog treats to welcome visiting dogs owned by the family of residents.
“Pets keep residents happy and settled and residents enjoy feeding pets and petting them.”
The only drawbacks would be when residents become too frail to look after them or if the animal becomes sick and requires additional care, he said.
Age Concern chief executive Stephanie Clare said pets can bring a lot of joy, connection and comfort for older people.
Moving into aged care shouldn’t restrict a person from these bonds with their pets and many villages allow animals or have their own resident pet, she said.
“It’s your home and you want your home to reflect who you are.”
When choosing an aged care facility it is important to find one that allows pets if that is what the older person wants, it can also help ease the transition by having something to look after.
Massey University School of Health Sciences associate professor Dr Mary Breheny, who supervised a study into animal therapy in aged care, said allowing people to have pets in retirement villages has more benefit than having visiting animals.
While the residents who were interviewed in the study enjoyed spending time with the visiting animals some of them noted that they didn’t feel the same connection as they would if it was their own pet.
Research on aging has shown that older people, like anyone, want to have a contributing role in society.
In aged care facilities residents can often feel like they are at the receiving end of help rather than being able to give back but if they have a pet to look after (even if it is helping with pet that already lives in the facility) they feel valued, she said.
Ryman Healthcare, which has retirement villages throughout New Zealand, allows residents who live independently to have pets due to their many benefits.
Corporate affairs manager David King said there are numerous studies showing how beneficial pets are to health and many of the residents’ pets have become celebrities around the villages, he said.
“We recognise that pets are an important part of our residents’ lives.”
One Ryman rest home even had a cat that was so popular the residents contributed to a trust fund set up to cover her food and vet costs and she slept in a basket at reception.