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A pet makes a world of difference in aged care

Animals are well-known to bring joy and happiness to older people, but this is now backed with scientific evidence that companion animals provide health benefits to those in aged care.

A recent research study has found that animals in aged care settings have increased economic and health benefits to older people. [Source: Shutterstock]

There has been a growing demand in Australia for pet-friendly aged care accommodation, with many people moving into a nursing home wanting to take their beloved pets, but have been unable to due to aged care home restrictions.

A University of South Australia study has found that animals in aged care have an increased economic and health benefit to older people, with the lead researcher asking for a greater acceptance of animals in aged care settings.

Dr Janette Young, UniSA Lecturer in Health Sciences, has made a formal submission to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety about the research and the benefits of allowing animals into nursing homes.

“While 64 per cent of Australian households have a pet, a 2018 Animal Welfare League report found that only 18 percent of residential aged care facilities allowed residents to live with a pet,” Dr Young says.

“This is despite all the evidence showing how important the human-animal bond is to people, perhaps even more so as they age.”

Nearly one in two people over the age of 65 own a pet, but may have to give up their loved family animal because of fears around who would look after their pets if they became ill or died.

Dr Young explains, “Older pet owners can be forced to either relinquish their pets to family members, animal welfare bodies or euthanise them in the event of entering aged care.

“It is distressing enough having to leave their home and move into aged care but leaving a pet behind, or ending its life due to circumstances beyond their control, only magnifies this stress.

“While many aged care homes do provide regular contact with animals in the form of visiting therapy animals, this ignores the unique bond between an individual and an animal who knows them, loves them and accepts them unequivocally.”

Dr Young’s research revealed that a number of older people stopped themselves from taking their own life due to their pet.

This study further proves the value pets have on people with chronic mental illnesses and physical disabilities.

Many studies have found links between pets, healthy ageing and improved wellbeing, including companionship, a sense of purpose, increased social interaction, physical activity and independence.

Dr Young wishes to undertake more research on how to incorporate pets into aged care facilities without causing issues for medical and care staff, keeping consideration for those with pet allergies and the needs of all residents.

“There’s growing global evidence of the negative health impacts of loneliness, including a shorter life span. Pets can help fill this void – often more so than trying to create human social support networks which can be forced,” says Dr Young.

“From an economic perspective, there are also potential health savings in allowing pets in aged care settings. Happier residents cut both pharmaceutical costs and staff time in managing poor behaviour. In turn, these savings could be used to fund animal carers. 

“In some cases, it is not suitable for pets to be taken into aged care accommodation, especially when their owner can no longer care for themselves, let alone an animal. Not all animals will be suitable or happy in that setting either.”

Additionally, Dr Young is wanting emergency and short-term animal care services available for the pets of older people, if the person was admitted to hospital for an unexpected period of time. 

“This would reduce the stress for older people who are worried about their pet’s welfare, often compounding their own health problems,” says Dr Young.


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