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Animals warm the hearts and laps of aged care residents

The introduction of animals in aged care continues to be a growing trend across Australia with a number of aged care providers once again reaffirming the many benefits pet therapy brings to elderly residents through a variety of initiatives, programs and partnerships.

Harry the Labrador visiting residents at a Melbourne Villa Maria aged care home (Source: Villa Maria Catholic Homes)
Harry the Labrador visiting residents at a Melbourne Villa Maria aged care home (Source: Villa Maria Catholic Homes)

Villa Maria Catholic Homes in Melbourne and Freedom Aged Care Tanah Merah are just two providers who have recently welcomed a number of furry friends to warm the hearts - and laps - of residents, staff and volunteers.

Volunteer Services Engagement Coordinator with Villa Maria Catholic Homes, Molly O’Shannassy, says pet therapy has “many benefits” and that the organisation has eight canine ‘volunteers’ - including a Labrador called Harry - who visit the various residences across Melbourne, bringing joy to seniors.

“It provides a welcome distraction for residents who may be in chronic pain, provides mental stimulation, helps with reminiscence - [especially] for people living with dementia, and can help increase social interaction,” Ms O’Shannassy says.

Harry the Labrador, and his owner Raelene Olsen, have become “firm, furry favourites” of residents at Villa Maria’s Willowbrooke aged care residence since they started visiting around six months ago as part of a volunteer program.

Ms Olsen says the visits with Harry are rewarding and that the response from residents towards the eight year old dog has been “fantastic”.

“There are so many people in aged care who don’t get any visitors so it’s nice to give something back,” she says.

“Harry enjoys it… he is a beautiful dog with a calm and laidback attitude, nothing bothers him.”

Ms Olsen says that when Harry isn’t sniffing around tables for crumbs dropped, he is sat beside residents who give him a pat and reminisce about their own dogs who they no longer care for.

“Those who are nonverbal just seem to get a good feeling from being around Harry,” she says.

“One fellow who always sits on his own and keeps to himself was at first a bit reticent, but now he puts his hands out to stroke the dog and you can see his eyes light up when Harry comes in.”

Freedom Aged Care Tanah Merah residents have partnered with the local RSPCA shelter over the past couple of months as part of their ‘Happy Paws Happy Hearts’ program.

The program sessions encourage residents to cuddle, pat and play with the shelter animals and reminisce with each other about their past and pets they once owned.

Freedom Aged Care say the program benefits both the residents and the animals and the provider plans to continue to welcome the rescue animals in 2018 with another planned visit for January, and resident’s visiting the shelter in February where they will have morning tea and a cuddle of animals.

Animal Welfare League (AWL) Spokesperson Sabine Kloss says taking animals from older people going into aged care is one of the “hardest things” the organisation has to do which is why she says they are working so hard on a local and National level to try an ensure pets are permitted to go with their owners as they transition into aged care.

“The reality is that pets make us happy and they provide unconditional love and comfort,” Ms Kloss explains.

“Studies show that for people in aged care with dementia, depression declines after they interact with an animal and in addition, animal companions help ease loneliness that may be a cause of depression.”

Ms Kloss goes on to say that a recent highlight for the AWL was the adoption of a long-term cat by the name of Whiskers who was adopted by an aged care facility.

“Whiskers was only adopted a month ago but some of his new owners already feel there is less stress in their lives, and a facility carer told us that many of the residents are happier,” she says.

“The carer said the atmosphere is just ‘different’ since Whiskers came along and that he has improved so many lives already - with one resident hugging this carer randomly to say ‘thank you’ for letting them have Whiskers.”

The AWL say they currently have successful working relationships with several aged care facilities who have developed pet friendly rooms with Ms Kloss adding that they would “love to see many more in 2018”.

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