“Emotional loneliness”: Should residents’ pets be allowed in all aged care homes?

Elderly lady with dog aged care

A 2017 survey by Relationships Australia found that older people (aged 75-plus) have the highest levels of ‘emotional loneliness’ (19%), which is the feeling of being dissatisfied because they have a low number of social contacts.

Older people often see their social connections decline: children leave home, spouses die, people downsize and lose connections with their local community.

Loneliness not only makes people feel sad, it has been shown to increase the risk of high blood pressure and poor immune function, and has even been linked to premature death.

Pets can reduce feelings of loneliness, and can therefore help to alleviate some of these problems.

Pets good for our health

Dr Eloise Bright is a vet and president of Pets and Positive Ageing (PAPA), a voluntary community organisation that helps ageing owners with their pets.

“With increasing levels of loneliness in the community, pets are a source of comfort and companionship, particularly for older people,” Dr Bright explained to HelloCare. 

Dr Bright added, “We also know that pets are good for our physical health as we age.”

According to the RSPCA, owning a pet can have several physical and psychological health benefits, including:

  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Increased physical activity, for example, dogs help people get outdoors and engage in regular exercise – they are great motivators and personal trainers, regardless of the weather
  • Fewer visits to the doctor
  • Pet owners report less depression and appear to cope with grief, stress and loss better than non-pet owners
  • Pets enhance social connectedness and social skills and are great conversation starters
  • Pets keep people company when we’re sick or feeling down, and make people feel safe when they are home alone and they keep an eye on the house while we’re out

What happens when older people have to move into care?

And so it follows that when an older person begins to think about changing their living circumstances, pets are often a central part of their decision making, and this can cause significant stress and anxiety.

“Pets definitely influence where people live,” Dr Bright agreed. 

“Many pet owners would never dream of giving up their pet, so choose somewhere [to live] that is pet friendly, or they stay in their own home for as long as possible.” 

PAPA maintains a list of Canberra aged care homes that accept pets, and lists them on their website. However, the matter is often not straightforward.

“There are certainly many limitations on what pets are acceptable, and many pet owners are still not aware that there are so many facilities that do allow pets,” Dr Bright said.

PAPA hopes to raise the profile of ageing pet owners and ensure they know their rights when it comes to rental accommodation and pets. 

Finding solutions

It is concerns like these that mean many older people put off getting a pet because they are concerned about what will happen to it should they need to go into care or even die.

“We recently conducted a survey of older pet owners to identify the barriers to pet ownership.” 

PAPA works closely with services such as Northside’s Pet Assistance and Wellbeing Service, which helps support older pet owners with pet care. 

Dr Bright also recommends that older people make plans for circumstances in which a pet might need to be cared for in an emergency.

“We recommend that pet owners work out what they would do with their pet should they need to go into hospital unexpectedly,” Dr Bright told HelloCare. 

Do you think pets should be allowed in all aged care homes? Share your thoughts below. 

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  1. I’ve always held the belief that
    Pets should come. I believe the so called “behaviours “ would change, they may make motivational choices and mental health challenges will change. My thinking is the main blocks will be toileting, exercise however these can be overcome with imaginative ideas, including the resident who knows their pet

  2. Hi

    Please check out our Facebook page to see our wonderful Ambrose (the super dog) who lived with us at Grand Cedar and sadly passed away a few months ago. Ambrose was so loved by everyone and truly made such s difference in all our days. We would love to adopt another senior dog in need of a loving home.

    We cannot say enough about the benefits of having a pet being part of our Grand Cedar family.

    Suzie
    GM Grand Cedar Ashwood Vic

  3. its probably a misleading question. Try this instead. Should older people be forced to separate from their pets… of course not, and a rights based aged care act won’t allow it. Does the current aged care home model make it easy for a resident to own a pet… goodness NO there are barriers every where. Should we change the model of aged care homes so that pet ownership can be encouraged… of course we should, why didn’t we do this years ago. What causes providers to turn their backs on the most basic and important needs of their “customers” …

  4. I do feel the emptyness now my Baby Dog is gone. Because I am not home enough and can’t take my dog with me when I work away from home, I hesitate to get another. They certainly fill the Lonliness gap.

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