Yesterday was National Love Your Pet Day and while many people got the chance to rejoice about their furry, finned or feathered companions, it was also a chance to prompt change among Australian aged care facilities for their animal-loving residents and highlight some ‘pawsitive’ initiatives.
Many older people are forced to give up their pets when entering aged care, often a detrimental and traumatising experience that South Australian researchers are pushing to change.
Despite Australia having one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, according to Pet Friendly Aged Care, only 18% of aged care facilities in Australia consider allowing residents to keep a pet.
New research out of the University of South Australia explored a practical model of hosting companion animals in aged care, including foster animals and personal pets, with researchers now calling for the Federal Government to mandate financial support for pets in aged care to help improve the mental health and well-being of residents.
This follows calls from the Companion Animal Network Australia (Australia CAN) last month to see Government-funded pet care supports introduced as part of in-home care and residential aged care packages.
UniSA researcher and project lead, Doctor Janette Young, said the health benefits of human-animal relations cannot be underestimated, particularly for aged care residents.
“The great thing about pets is that they can help us feel happier and healthier. And they can do this in different ways: we take them on walks and play with them, so they help us stay active; we feed and care for them, so they give us purpose; but most importantly, they’re always there to give us unconditional love and companionship,” Doctor Young said.
“But as we get older, pet ownership declines, and so too do these benefits. One of the most unrecognised issues of ageing is touch deprivation. Pets are there to pat and cuddle and can make all the difference to someone when they’re feeling sad or down.”
Another UniSA experiment is the ‘cats in aged care’ project where two adult cats would live among aged care residents in a dedicated wing of the facility and are cared for by a select group of trained staff and volunteers.
This project is aimed to support the emotional needs of people in care and Doctor Young is currently seeking residential care partners to explore in-residence opportunities.
An assessment tool that shows any risks to humans and animals has already been developed for this project to ensure everyone’s safety, but rolling it out into willing and able residential aged care facilities is the next challenge.
“By living with the residents, the cats would help ease residents’ loneliness, as well as relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. They’d be there to pat, to talk to, to care for and love, and to provide that special sense of companionship.”
The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety found that the aged care industry had a lack of innovation and needed to be better built around older people and their needs.
Hoping to break through this barrier and reconnect older people with pets and animals, Doctor Young hopes this research will lead to positive change in residential aged care facilities.
“It’s no longer good enough for people to simply live longer. They need to be assured of happy, healthy, and meaningful older years, and for pet-loving older people, this means including their beloved pets,” she said.
“Many aged care facilities are keen to try new innovations but are limited by resources and funding. Staff turnover is also a significant barrier… We need the Federal Government to stand up to fund pets in aged care.
“Just like exercise facilities have become a core part of aged care facilities – and are proven to boost movement capabilities and wellbeing – so too should pets be considered an essential part of aged care.”
A survey currently being compiled by Australia CAN and will provide Federal Government decision-makers with valuable information about what older pet owners need and want in the new Federal in-home aged care program.
To participate in the survey and have your say on how pets could positively impact older people living in residential aged care, visit the Australia CAN website.