In 2017 Nikki took her mini foxie Daphne for regular visits to Bupa Aged Care. They were “pet therapy” volunteers.
Every week, Nikki would have to reintroduce herself and Daphne as many of the residents didn’t remember who they were.
But after a few months some residents started recognising them…well not so much Nikki – they would remember Daphne.
Residents would join them in the living room for cuddles, pats and doggy licks. Or if they preferred to stay in their rooms, Nikki and Daphne would pay them individual visits.
Lucy was a huge dog lover with dog stuffed toys and ornaments in her room. She would always thank Nikki for remembering to visit her.
Many residents would share stories about their dogs and cats, usually from childhood.
One resident didn’t know that it was her birthday the next day. But seeing Daphne reminded her all about her beloved childhood dog – a mini foxie called Kimmy – and how her dad taught Kimmy to do tricks like sit up and shake hands.
Another lady who was confined to bed asked if Daphne could sit on her lap. “Daphne curled up and the lady started crying tears of joy because she just loves dogs so much and missed her dogs,” said Nikki.
“The pure gratitude and love that I witnessed between Daphne and the residents brought me to tears a few times,” she says. “I can’t even put it into words how it made me feel, it was just so special for everyone involved.”
A multitude of benefits
Pets can boost emotional and physical wellbeing. As well as being social catalysts, they offer social support and unconditional love, reducing loneliness and feelings of isolation.
Owning pets has been linked to lower risk factors for heart disease, like reduced blood pressure. Pets can reduce stress levels, and cancer patients have reported that their pets helped them during treatment.
They can also make people laugh, says Janette Young, pet researcher at the University of South Australia, which has known health benefits. “You can’t be depressed when you’re laughing.”
Furry companions can help older adults make the transition to aged care. “We know that people’s depression increases when they go into care, because there’s all these losses,” says Young.
As well as providing comfort, pets can give people “a reason to wake up in the morning,” Young says. The sense of purpose, “that something in the world would miss you,” she adds, “that’s actually protective.”
In interviews with older adults, Young surprisingly uncovered a strong theme of suicide prevention, with people suggesting that without their pets, “they wouldn’t be here”.
Taking pets seriously
“Not taking pets seriously in how we consider and support ageing means we may be condemning some older people to isolation and loneliness,” Young wrote for The Conversation.
She argues that we need to find ways to support older adults to keep their pets when they go into full time care.
Some aged care centres – like Bupa – are welcoming pets because of their demonstrated health benefits. Weighing up the challenges, evidence suggests that the benefits are well and truly worthwhile.
Perhaps pet therapy should be included in new standards for aged care?
Young points out, though, that it’s important to consider the pets’ welfare. Research shows that dogs can be stressed, for instance, but people are unaware of the signs – like looking away, lip licking and yawning.
Some breeds are more anxiety-prone than others. “So we just need to be conscious of the animals as well.”