Lifestyle08 May 2019

Could living with pets help you live happier and healthier in your senior years?

Jen Adams
Jen Adams

If you’re an animal lover, it’s probably hard for you to imagine living without pets or any other animals in your life – now, or ever. The good news is that you might not ever have to go without the unconditional love and affection (and occasional hilarity) of an animal pal, even if you have to go in to aged care.

In the UK, a ‘creative ageing’ charity called Equal Arts launched a hen-keeping program aimed at engaging older residents in care homes. Residents love holding, patting and interacting with the chooks, as well as doing some of the work for their upkeep, like feeding them and refilling their water. Now, two aged care homes in Australia have implemented the HenPower Program too1.

Health benefits of pet ownership

Although it might be a ‘creative’ program for an aged care facility, HenPower is fairly firmly rooted in science. There are several studies suggesting that pet ownership has positive effects on an individual’s health in the long term. And it’s not always in the way you might think.

Sure, having a dog will help give you the motivation you need to take a decent walk every day. But did you know:

  • Cats purr at a particular range of vibration2 that’s beneficial for improving joint mobility after an injury?3
  • Having a dog in the family home can significantly reduce a young child’s chances of developing an allergy4.
  • Patting a live animal may help reduce anxiety in stressful situations5.
  • Even less cuddly pets can help; one study from 2016 suggested that caring for insects (this study looked at crickets) can help reduce depression and anxiety in elderly people6.

What’s available in Australia?

The benefits of animal interaction are fairly well recognised in the Australian aged care professional community. Many facilities have animal visiting programs. But not all supported living facilities and aged care homes have pets living on site, and even fewer allow individuals to keep pets. Some may charge a little extra to cover the cost of minor maintenance and damage that can be caused by animals. Others may not charge a separate fee for pets, but due to their pet-friendly status, may have a long waiting list.

The good news is that several seniors’ advocacy groups and animal welfare organisations are running campaigns to help encourage more facilities to become pet friendly. The Animal Welfare League of Australia runs the ‘Positive Ageing in the Company of Animals Project’, which includes extensive information, and has even run a grant program in the past7. Evidence from international organisations like International Federation on Ageing also help to progress this very good cause8.

Planning for yourself or your loved ones

It’s possible that the national aged care standards will eventually catch up to what science already knows about pet ownership. But while we wait, it’s a good idea to plan ahead for potential pet-related expenses. If you want to help make sure your (or your parents’) twilight years are spent in the company of a furry friend, get your ducks in a row (so to speak) early.

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