When entering such care, it is a sad truth that many pets are not permitted to accompany their beloved owners. Sabine Kloss, spokesperson for the Animal Welfare League, stated that one of the hardest responsibilities that falls to their organisation is to assist elderly pet-lovers in surrendering their furry companions.
Besides the obvious companionship that a pet provides, studies have shown that animals—such as cats—have had profound positive effects on both mental well-being and the often tragic symptoms of aging.
The Australian Companion Animal Council’s report, ‘The Power of Pets’ found that professionals had been examining the positive affect pets can have on humans since the 1960's. This report—and others like it—have demonstrated the direct positive impact cats and other pets can have on a person’s quality of life.
One example is the simple act of petting a cat. Doing so stabilises the heart, which prevents the rise of blood pressure – a common health concern among the elderly. Pets have also been proven to increase morale and reduce mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress, and depression.
With an estimated 49% of Australian aged care residents suffering from depression it is a wonder that more facilities do not allow their residents to reap the benefits of pet care or (at least) pet visitation.
Seasons Aged Care, a pet-friendly aged care home in Queensland, has seen these benefits in action. Pet care alone requires elderly residents to groom, bathe, walk, feed, and otherwise physically care for their animals. These actions maintain joint flexibility and increase exercise and even social interaction, as reluctant residents begin to interact with other pet-lovers both in conversation and physical activity.
For those residents who are nonverbal, immobile, or without visitors, the mere presence of a gentle pet (such as a cat) can distract residents from chronic pain and loneliness. Welcoming pets into residential care facilities is one of the only permanent ways to, “deliver a noticeably improved atmosphere”, as the Animal Welfare League attests.
At Villa Maria Catholic Homes in Melbourne, dementia sufferers have also found comfort and distraction in cats and other familiar animals. As Dementia Australia explains, their organisation’s namesake can result in behaviour changes including aggression, anxiety, and resistance. Staff at Season Aged Care have reported the incredible improvement pets have had on their residents. One elderly female—who had kept cats as pets—began smiling, eating, and talking after once again interacting with the familiar species. She had previously refused to eat or drink.
Cats and other pets can anchor residents by providing familiarity, structure, and companionship. For the family member forced to watch a loved one’s decline, the confused dementia sufferer, or the lonely resident unable to leave care: the countless benefits a pet can provide is surely an invaluable resource to aged care facilities everywhere.