Friday, April 15, 2016

How can we help support older people with companion animals?

Can we do more to support the bond between companion animals and senior pet owners?

A few years ago I did a house call to vaccinate an overweight Maltese terrier. The owner was 96 years old, lived home alone, and was estranged from her family. She told me that the only reason for getting out of bed in the morning was to feed her dog. Her biggest anxiety? Going to hospital or into care and having to part with her dog.

“That would be the end of me,” she said.

As Julia Keady blogged,

Next time you're at an animal shelter, take a look at the number of senior dogs lined up in pens wondering what happened to their lovely warm home. Then think of their owners, many of whom have moved to nursing homes, missing the beloved canine or feline they couldn't bring with them.Then consider the separation anxiety of two souls who had perhaps long been each other's companion, source of joy and a big reason to get out of bed in the morning, and you are starting to understand a very real and psychologically tormenting issue that our ageing population faces.
This is a real and very painful issue affecting many Australians.

It’s undeniable that we treat older people in our community differently. Rather than venerating our elders, they are often treated as a burden – financial, emotional or time-wise. I don’t know why this is – I’ve got plenty of friends and family who have seven or eight decades under their belt, and they’ve got the best stories. They've usually seen it all, done it all, and don't catastrophise about it the way younger generations do. But they can also be very lonely.

Animals don’t discriminate based on age. In fact, an older person is more likely to enjoy a quiet night in, and plenty of dogs and cats appreciate a human hot water bottle to sit with or on. They are incredibly important companions, they’re a talking point, someone to talk to, a reason to stick to a healthy routine, an adjunct to the doorbell (some more than others!) and so on.

Furthermore, many senior pet owners have senior pets – those who are less likely to be re-homed if surrendered to a shelter or pound.

It’s true that the companion animals of older people may need more support – maybe its walking, help with trips to the vet or assistance with medicating – but if they can be well taken care of in a safe environment, it can be beneficial for all parties to support that human animal bond.

Keady interviewed, among others, Di Johnstone, someone who has been a consistent and very powerful advocate for the need to recognise and support the bond between senior pet owners and pets. She has been involved with Pets and Positive Aging as well as the Pets and Aged Care Steering Group.

According to Di Johnstone, we can all help by:
  • Talking to aged-care providers and community service organisations about the benefits of the human animal bond to older pet owners;
  • Encouraged aged-care providers and community service organisations to offer pet-friendly accommodation and care;
  • Promote aged-care providers and community service organisations who do provide support for older pet owners;
  • Volunteer for or set up a community based in-home support service for older pet owners.

If you want to read more about Di’s work, and about this issue in general, check out our previous post here. Thanks to Claire for suggesting this topic!