Pet therapy for the elderly

Pet Therapy for the Elderly | Aged Care Guide

July 24, 2017

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It is beyond question that pets can benefit their owners and others around them, physically, psychologically and socially. So much so that many aged care facilities run programs around pet therapy for the elderly.

Pet therapy for the elderly has been shown to greatly increase quality of life by reducing tension, fatigue and confusion, as well as increasing enthusiasm, interest and inspiration. In nursing homes or aged care facilities, the role of pets is particularly significant. Studies have shown beyond doubt that pet therapy for the elderly offers one of the few interventions capable of permanently “lifting” the environment in hospices and nursing homes, and even delaying the ageing process. Simply by talking to pets and taking on the responsibility of caring for them, physical activity increases, along with social interaction and mental functioning. Dogs especially help people maintain a more active routine.

Elderly residents who were exposed to pets have been shown to be measurably more alert and prone to smiling more than those not similarly exposed. Physical aggression has been lessened and tolerance levels have increased markedly. This has been attributed to the “normalisation” of the environment when animals are present, making those around them more at ease.

Elderly pet owners also make fewer visits to doctors than those who don’t have animal companions, possibly because the animals mitigate loneliness. Judith Siegel, Professor of Public Health at the University of California at Los Angeles, goes so far as to suggest that, “Perhaps pet ownership might provide a new form of low-cost health intervention.”

At one aged care facility, one of the managers recalled a time when one of the home’s golden retrievers suddenly left her side to seek out a woman sobbing alone in a wheelchair. The dog laid its head on the woman’s lap, nuzzling her hands. It took a few minutes for the woman to notice the dog, but then she said, “Oh… somebody does love me”, over and over again.

The Proven Benefits of Pet Therapy for the Elderly

In the publication “A long-term study of elderly people in nursing homes with visiting and resident dogs” by Patricia Crowley-Robinson, Douglas C. Fenwick and Judith K. Blackshaw, three nursing homes in Brisbane, each with either a resident or a visiting dog, took part in a study. The results can be summarised as follows:

  • Tension and confusion were reduced in the nursing home with a resident dog
  • The resident dog group showed significant decreases in depression
  • Significant increases in vigour amongst residents were found in all three nursing homes
  • Fatigue decreased significantly in the visiting and resident dog groups

This study points up many of the benefits of having a resident or visiting dog in a elderly persons’ facility. If a permanent dog or pet is not an option, visiting pets and/or visiting people can vastly improve the lives and well-being of elderly residents.

At the Cairns Aged Care Plus centre in Brisbane, a hobby farm run by The Salvation Army Aged Care Plus, five goats form an integral part of the community. CEO Maryann Curry says, “The residents and staff love them and feed them so much that they (the goats) now refuse to eat the grass growing in the paddock and we have to mow the hill with machinery.”

Meanwhile at Macquarie Lodge in Sydney’s inner-west, a Chihuahua named Bella is companion to the lodge’s 130-plus residents. Centre Manager Maryanne Gray says that “…although Bella is only a tiny dog, she plays a big role at Macquarie Lodge. She spends her days visiting the residents, attending board game activities, bus trips and keeping residents company at the hairdresser. Bella is nursed by a lot of the people here, it’s good therapy.”

For the elderly, just like anyone else in the community, pets can be like family, offering companionship and unconditional love. But for many older people moving to an aged care facility, leaving a pet behind can bring on feelings of loss and despair, which can have a serious effect on the older person’s wellbeing.

Are Pets Allowed in Aged Care Facilities?

Although more and more aged care facilities are becoming aware of the benefits to resident or visiting pets, not all of them allow pets or sessions of pet therapy for the elderly.

Individual residents as well as resident groups can work with aged care managers to find ways of preserving the bond between people and pets, particularly when pet owners are relocated to an aged care facility. Good aged care operators/managers will ensure the welfare of pets as well as the people in their charge. There are many successful models already operating in Australia and overseas and, with pets proven to raise happiness quotients and general well-being, enlightened aged care managers are fast realising that including pets in their mix of therapies and treatments can make their lives much easier.

In tandem with the growing movement amongst aged care facilities to introduce pet therapy for the elderly, there are many groups and organisations working on keeping governments, aged care operators and the community updated about the benefits to elderly Australians continuing a relationship with their pets.

Pet Therapy for the Elderly Further Information:


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