Lee-Ann Nordin, Owner and Chief "Fluffy" Officer of FurTastic Friends by Bocchetta Plush Toys, says the saddest part of the COVID experience for her has been seeing older people become socially isolated.
She wanted to help these older people who were experiencing loneliness and found that many families wanted to purchase these fluffy companions for their older loved ones', as they greatly improved their health and wellbeing.
"I was raised in my father’s veterinary practice and thus understand the huge value of pets in terms of connection," explains Lee-Ann.
"Anyone with pets will know that animals can make us feel better. They comfort us, reduce our stress, amuse us, provide companionship, create joy and offer unconditional love.
"But, what happens when people cannot have access to or are not able to care for a pet? Do you think it’s possible to substitute a real animal with a lifelike and friendly stuffed animal? We believe that it is!
"Plush stuffed animals provide free hugs all of the time, cannot be tripped over and won’t bark, jump, bite or scratch. They give fidgety hands a soft and comforting place to rest and often bring back fond memories as people remember pets that they once loved."
Lee-Ann explains that the key clients of the business are people in aged care facilities and hospitals, as they can assist people that are experiencing loneliness, stress and anxiety, but also assist people with medical conditions, like dementia or Alzheimer's, or mental health disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The company doesn't want their animals to be treated like "toys" because they consider them to be lifelike animal companions and their purpose isn't to be a toy, but a substitute pet that may create connection by reminding a person of their past pets.
You will not find a brightly coloured unicorn or dragon amongst the Bocchetta Plush Toys’ range. The plush toys are realistic, from dogs and cats, to native Australian wildlife and farm animals, there is a substitute animal friend for everyone.
One customer of FurTastic Friends, Angela, explains that she has seen the joy that a substitute companion animal has brought to older people.
"I recently had the pleasure of giving an Annabel dog to an elderly friend called Megan. The great pleasure it has given her and the difference to her health having the dog has made has been remarkable," says Angela.
"It enabled Megan to have the comfort of feeling she was sharing her home with a real life dog."
Angela added that while people may believe furry companions can be demeaning, that isn't actually the case, and many older people experience benefits from having a substitute animal companion.
"An unexpected flow on benefit is the reaction from some of the other residents in the retirement village where Megan lives, when she took her for a walk around the gardens. After lots of stroking and cuddling, many of the residents confessed to having "toy" companions themselves but had been shy of admitting this to other people," says Angela.
Another client, Joy, loves explaining her favourite artists to her collection of furry puppies from Bocchetta.
"Joy is obsessed with Andre Rieu, Andrea Bocelli and Katherine Jenkins and the improvement in her mood and communication since we bought her the puppies is noticeable - watching her explaining tv shows and concerts quite normally and cogently," says Ken, Joy’s son, who has been caring for her for over nine years.
"She gives quite detailed explanations to the puppies about the concert and what’s going on. She also sings to the puppies spontaneously - quite complex songs. These big improvements are both significant and very welcome."
Lee-Ann loves to see the impact of her handcrafted-with-love substitute companion animals on older Australians, and hopes to continue bringing joy and laughter to the elderly.
To view the FurTastic Friends range or learn more, head to their website.