New research from the University of South Australia has revealed that keeping dogs, cats, or budgies as pets could be providing a vital lifeline for the elderly
According to researchers, the presence of pets can help prevent those over 60 from completing suicide. Following the unexpected findings, health sciences lecturer from the University of South Australia, Dr Janette Young, has begun supporting a push to introduce pet fostering in care homes for the elderly.
“Pets offer a counter to many older people’s sense of uselessness. Animals need looking after which creates a sense of purpose for older people and they also promote social connections with other people.” Dr Young explained.
The small study published in the journal Anthrozoos, which has led the way on human-animal relations for over 20 years, saw Dr Young and colleagues interviewing over 35 elderly people aged 60 to 83. When asked how their pets influence their health, one third of respondents said that they were “actively suicidal” or “significantly traumatised”, but their pets had given them a reason to keep on living.
But for many elderly people, the choice of whether to give up their pet or not isn't entirely their own.
According to research by the Blue Cross, just 40% of UK care homes claim to be ‘pet friendly’ however, in practice, the facilities and rules aren’t always clear or consistent. Over two thirds of older pet owners from the UK said that they would be ‘devastated’ if they had to give up their pet to go into care.
While some ‘pet friendly’ care homes allow residents to have their pets live with them, others use the same terminology when meaning that pets can visit alongside relatives, that the care home has a resident pet, staff can bring their pets to work, or that the facilities have a fish tank. For those who can no longer safely live alone or may require extra help and support, this can create a heartbreaking choice.
With a quarter of older pet owners considering their furry companions to be family, it’s understandable that many are calling for more transparent, consistent, and clear approaches to help pet owners who may need to move into care homes.
When asked, Dr Young revealed that they had not expected that the question asking about how pets influence participants health would lead to the revelation that a third had attempted suicide, or had suicidal thoughts. This research is thought to be the the first published to reveal such links. Past research has highlighted the importance of pets as a significant part in the recovery from attempted suicide, as well as a protective force against suicide amongst abused women and homeless people.
One participant in the research said: “I actually realised the only thing that is really keeping me alive, was these (dogs) and the birds, giving me a chance to get out of bed in the morning.” Of those who revealed that pets had played a key role in protecting their mental health, a significant proportion were men. One participant revealed that due to his unusual pets, including a number of reptiles and a crocodile, he had sought contact with specialist groups in the local community.
“This is a particularly important finding,” Dr Young explained “Men over the age of 85 have a high rate of suicide. It’s about finding things that are important in terms of wellbeing. Reptiles for example, are nocturnal, so if you have depression or can’t sleep at night who can be around to keep you company?”
In the UK, men are statistically three times more likely to die by suicide than women, or four times as likely for those in the Republic of Ireland. The highest rates of death by suicide are amongst men aged 45-49 in the UK, whilst in the Republic of Ireland, those aged 55-65 are most at risk.
Dr Young’s research highlights that pets could play a protective role for older people experiencing complex health problems, social isolation, loneliness, or concerns about being a burden to their families. “We need to be taking these human animal relationships more seriously in that whole space of humanising aged care.
“Health and care providers need to understand the distress that many older people face when they have to relinquish their pets if they move into aged accommodation, lose their spose, or downsize their house. For some, the loss of a pet may mean the loss of a significant mental health support.”
The wellbeing benefits of pets has become more widely spoken about in relation to stress relief, creating opportunities to meet new people, focus on the present, and offer an important sense of companionship to tackle growing feelings of loneliness. Previous studies have also revealed the mood-boosting and mental health benefits of pet ownership for those diagnosed with mental health conditions.
As counsellor and psychologist Philip explained, “Having a pet gives you space outside of your life schedule to show love affection and appreciation for another. In return not only does your pet give you the same love that you have shown to them back, but you get a sense of responsibility and nurturing from the kindness that you have shown to them.”
This latest research highlights the benefits pet companionship can have for us at any age, as well as the significant impact our pets can have on our wellbeing and sense of purpose.
If you are struggling with your mental health, are feeling lonely, isolated, or are having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to know that you aren’t alone. There are people out there who do care, and help is available.
If you are worried about your immediate health and wellbeing, call 999 or visit your local A&E department. If you need someone to talk to, the Samaritans are here to listen, judgement-free, at any time – day or night. Call on 116 123 or visit their website to find out more about how you can get in contact with a Samaritan today.
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