Old people’s home for … dogs? The aged care centre where pets are a perfect fit
When Annie the cavoodle walks down the hall at Lifeview Willow Wood, she gets a rock star welcome from her neighbours who stop their mobility walkers for a cuddle or a pat.
Every Thursday night when Annie’s owner Daphne Wilson, 89, leaves to play bingo for a few hours, residents at the aged care home in Cranbourne West line up to take care of her four-year-old dog.
Daphne Wilson and her cavoodle Annie.Credit:Eddie Jim
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” Wilson says, moments before Annie plants a big lick her cheek. “Without each other, she would be lonely, and I would be so lonely too.”
While Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of pet ownership, few aged care homes allow residents to bring animals with them when they move in. This means hundreds of pets are surrendered to shelters, and some even euthanised, each year when elderly people move into care.
Welfare organisation Companion Animal Network Australia said only about one in five aged care homes nationally consider allowing residents to bring their pets when they move in.
However, Lifeview is one of a growing number of aged care operators in Australia recognising the health and social benefits of older people keeping their pets.
Its facility in Cranbourne West is home to 117 residents, three dogs and two cats, while its other three homes in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs of Chelsea, Emerald and Wheelers Hill are also home to cats, dogs and birds.
Lifeview chief executive officer Samantha Jewell said the organisation had always opted to be pet-friendly, as numerous studies showed that having pets – especially dogs and cats – improved cardiovascular fitness, could help control cholesterol and blood pressure, and reduced stress, loneliness and depression.
“When somebody moves in with their pet, there is less grief and sadness because you’re giving up everything you’ve ever known to move into care, and it can be a huge and difficult change,” Jewell said.
“We find people are happier and healthier and deteriorate less quickly when they have their pet with them.”
Paul Debar with his dog Bonny.Credit:Eddie Jim
For Paul Debar, the devastation of being separated from his dog Bonny after moving into aged care last year was so painful that he packed his belongings and left, just so he could be reunited with her.
The pair, who have been inseparable for 13 years, had found themselves on the edge of homelessness, living in a caravan with a leaky roof. Debar could only afford to feed one of them. Most days, he went hungry, spending what little money he had on dog food for Bonny.
But recently, Debar and his beloved German shepherd-kelpie cross moved in a few doors down from Daphne Wilson and Annie.
“It’s been so good for me,” said Debar, who joked he had put on five kilograms since moving in just before Christmas. “My mental health is now through the roof. I can finally call this my forever home.”
Bonny, a mellow and loving dog who rarely barks – but who growls softly when she wants more pats – is also thriving. Her tail has barely stopped wagging, due to the daily pats she receives from residents.
Jewell said animals also brought joy to other residents and increased socialisation and interactions between residents in the home.
Paul Debar and Bonny.Credit:Eddie Jim
She said there were strict policies in place to ensure resident well-being, including not allowing pets into dining areas, and ensuring animals socialise safely with people and other pets before they are allowed to move in.
Cats remain in residents’ rooms, while all dogs are on leads when walked around the facilities. Animals must be up-to-date with their immunisations and are examined by a vet for suitability before moving in. The resident and their family must also be largely responsible for grooming, cleaning and providing food for their pets.
If a resident is no longer well enough to take care of their pet, there is an agreement that a family member or friend adopt the animal, so the pet does not end being surrendered to a shelter.
John Aucote with his dog Susie.Credit:Eddie Jim
For 84-year-old John Aucote, having his 14-year-old golden retriever Susie by his side has made the recent life-altering transition from independent living to aged care much easier.
“I would be heartbroken without her,” he said.
Australia’s new in-home aged care program is coming into effect next year, and an advisory board for the federal government is examining the role of pets in healthy ageing.
Monash University researcher Dr Em Bould has been studying human-animal interactions for years, and is leading a new study with the National Centre for Healthy Ageing to tackle loneliness in ageing populations.
John Aucote, Paul Debar and Daphne Wilson with their dogs. Credit:Eddie Jim
“You’re asking people to give up another family member when they move into aged care and if they can’t take their pet with them, it may actually stop them wanting to go into aged care,” Bould said.
The researcher said making aged care more pet-friendly could help older Australians to accept additional support when they needed it, and to make new friends.
“Dogs can be great catalysts for social interaction because they are such a conversation starter,” Bould said.
“Even if it’s as simple as ‘what is the name of your dog?’ Those simple, incidental interactions can help people feel so much more connected.”
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