Monday, January 20, 2014

Helping older people keep their pets: interview with Karen Schlieper

Karen with the late Pokemon aka Pokey, a rescued Spitz cross. Karen reared him from the age of four weeks and couldn't bear to part with him when he was old enough to be adopted. So he moved in and lived for 13 wonderful years.

Karen Schlieper has been working at the RSPCA since I can remember, she has a soft spot for animals and she is particularly passionate about helping older people maintain the bond with their pets. She took time out of her busy schedule to chat to SAT about what she does and how she finds the energy to do it.

Tell us a bit about yourself – who are you, what do you do?
I have been with RSPCA NSW for close to 30 years. I started off as an Animal Attendant, have worked in all areas of the Yagoona shelter as well as several regional shelters throughout NSW and also some time at Darwin, NT shelter. I have also worked within the clinic, finance, payroll and workers compensation areas so have a broad knowledge of RSPCA operations. I now work with the 4 clinics (Sydney, Rutherford, Tighes Hill & Broken Hill) and Community Outreach Programs. RSPCA NSW runs several programs to assist people and their pets including the Community Animal Welfare Scheme (CAWS), Indigenous Dogs, Living Ruff, Pets Of Older Persons(POOPs) and Safe Beds For Pets.

Pets & people are incredibly important to me and it gives me great satisfaction to be able to assist people with their pets.

POOPs is the RSPCA program I started with and I am also on the ACT Steering group which is aimed at promoting the government to assist with Home Care etc that includes pets so people can stay in their own homes longer. There is also another group that I have regular contact with, RealAnimals, Pets and People, they are based in Victoria and this is made up of a whole lot of small community groups that assist mainly elderly or financially compromised people with pets in their own homes.

Do you have any pets at the moment? Can you tell us a bit about them?

I have 3 dogs and 3 cats, all from the RSPCA. My dogs are: “Pixie” a Cavalier Spaniel x who is now 11yrs old. “Angel” a Tibetan Spaniel x who is 12yrs old and “Pookie” a Pomeranian, 4yrs old (the newest recruit, adopted in May 2013). The cats are: “Bumble” Domestic Shorthair, 12yrs old, “Jamaica” Exotic Shorthair, 12yrs old and “Poppy Buttonfield” Persian, 4yrs old. I grew up with animals, dogs, cats and birds and have since had fish and a goat and cannot imagine not having any!

How important are your pets to you?

My ‘kids’ are incredibly important. My partner and I have had numerous between us and I could not imagine a life that didn’t include a companion animal. They live with us, sleep in their beds in our room, sit on the lounge, play, exercise and generally fit into all aspects of our lives. They are the comic relief and joy in our lives and although when the time comes and they pass away it is terribly distressing I am incredibly thankful for the love and joy they bring while they are with us.

Pixie catches some z's.
How did you become interested in the area of helping older people with their pets?

I have always been a social person who enjoys talking to others about their pets and hearing stories about their life in general. Being able to interact and assist other people to do the best for their pets has always been a passion and I grew up with my grandmother and nana as next door neighbours so had lots of contact with older people and enjoy their company. Work now gives me the opportunity to combine things that I love to do!

Can you tell us a bit about the bond that older pet owners have with their pets?

Older people, particularly those that live alone, depend on their pet for love and companionship. It gives them a focus and a common expression I hear is “I wouldn’t even get out of bed if it wasn’t for...” Pets give a sense of purpose and make people feel they are worthwhile. Your pet is never going to criticise you or give you a hard time about your cooking, your looks or anything else. Pets are completely accepting and devoted to their people and will protect and love you. For an older person (and not just the older population!) this is often the only regular companionship they have and the human/animal bond is incredibly strong.

Bumble gets up close and personal with the camera.
How does POOPs work, and how does it benefit humans and animals?

POOPs assists elderly pet owners with care of their pets and also allows them to take care of their own needs. We have lots of clients that delay dealing with their own health issues because they have no one to look after their companions. POOPs aims to assist older pet owners to stay in their own home for as long as possible, we work with human services to ensure a holistic approach to both people and animal care. We provide regular in-home services to ensure parasite control, monthly flea control, intestinal worming etc. as well as grooming and bathing of pets for people who may have difficulty in doing so themselves. We also provide boarding or foster care for pets if the person needs to go into hospital or respite. They can then concentrate on their own health without having to worry about their pet who will be very excited to see them when they come home again!

Why is it important to keep people in their homes longer?

With an ageing population there is more strain being put on health and aged care services. There is limited availability in nursing homes (and they are not everyone’s choice of accommodation) and quite a number of these are not animal friendly which means that people have to give up a loved companion – devastating for both the person and the pet! If people are supported to stay in their own homes then they are in familiar surroundings and are able to continue to live in a manner to which they are accustomed and also content. If these people had to go into care facilities they would have to make a choice about their companion animal too and unfortunately these are generally quite limited – surrender to a shelter or rescue group, rehoming or euthanasia. By supporting people in their own homes we can also reduce the number animals that end up in these situations.

How can other members of the community support older pet owners?

Take the time to check! If you know of an elderly pet owner it can be as simple as talking to them. Sometimes they are socially isolated and the only company they have is their pet and the offer of a chat or to assist with walking a dog or even to give them a lift to a local vet would be very much appreciated. POOPs has volunteers and foster carers that assist with these sorts of tasks (see RSPCA NSW website). Also donating things like old blankets, food, heated pet beds, dog coats, flea treatments, shampoos etc and monetary donations to POOPs helps us to provide ongoing services to our clients. If you see someone that you think needs help, offer it, they may not need it but will very likely appreciate that you have asked. If you don’t feel able to do so, contact POOPs and we can send out some brochures, you can pop one in a letterbox and maybe we can help.

Poppy the persian.
How can veterinarians and vet students support older pet owners?

Vets and vet students can help by providing guidance and assistance to older pet owners. If possible discounted vet treatment will help ease a financial burden as these clients are generally living on a pension and although they want to be able to provide the best for their pet, financial constraints sometimes prevent this from happening. Even the ability to pay off an account or setup a ‘savings’ acct with a local vet will give peace of mind to a client. We have clients that have $5 from each pension put into a ‘savings’ account for their pet so that when annual checks etc come up they don’t have the worry of paying a bulk amount at once. There are also opportunities for vets and vet students to attend events like Million Paws Walk, Northcott Pet Day and Pets in the Park. Some of these are targeted at those pet owners that may be doing it tough and help both the animal and the owner with their health and welfare.