The value of animals in care homes

As a nation known for its animal lovers, many will agree with the anonymous quote, “a house is not a home without a pet”. This can particularly be the case for older people, where the companionship of a pet can be an antidote to loneliness, replacing absent human relationships, or the last living link to a deceased partner. A pet makes them feel needed, gives a central focus to daily routines, and increases exercise and mobility.

Research shows that older people who are allowed to keep their pets when moving into residential care make a smoother transition. Older pet owners also have a lower risk of heart attack and stroke and are less likely to develop heart failure. They require 15% fewer GP visits, fewer prescription medications and spend 30% less time in hospital.

On the other hand, those who have to give up a pet to go into care can suffer feelings of bereavement similar to losing a family member. They can feel they have lost their sense of identity if they have always been a pet owner and feel they have a lack of purpose. They may become depressed, have disturbed sleeping or eating patterns and become ill.

In 1995 the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations called on governments to recognise the therapeutic value of the human-animal bond and to legislate to allow pets in care facilities. This was then endorsed by the World Health Organisation. Some countries, including the US, Spain, Greece, France, Norway and Switzerland, followed suit and introduced legislation to protect older people’s rights to keep their animals when they move into care facilities.

Excluded pets

Yet, according to recent research from the Society for Companion Animal Studies (Scas), although a quarter of all people of retirement age own a pet, only 29% of care facilities routinely allow them. Many of these homes exclude cats and dogs which are the most common pets.

The study of 234 care homes and sheltered housing units in six UK cities replicated a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1993 which highlighted the importance of pets to older people.

Research psychologist June McNicholas, who conducted both studies, is disappointed that attitudes have changed little in 15 years, despite growing evidence of the health and social benefits that pets bring. “We need to explode the myths that it is difficult, dangerous or time-consuming to have pets in care,” she says. “A lot of fears from managers and staff are unfounded.”

Several residents told McNicholas during her research: “my animal is my home.”

“The pet is a sense of continuity,” says McNicholas. “As people get older their ability to nurture something decreases so the fact that the animal needs them is important. As is the cuddle factor; older people are often only touched in an impersonal way for care purposes so affection from an animal is important. It also helps them socially interact with staff and residents.”

Therapeutic value

The charity, Pets As Therapy, provides visiting pets for care home residents to cuddle as a therapeutic treatment. Many homes believe communal and visiting pets are an adequate substitute, but Jane Fossey, clinical psychologist and vice-chair of Scas, says this ignores the importance of the relationship with a personal pet. “Although communal pets are helpful, it does miss out on the opportunity to continue the emotionally nurturing role of personal pets.

“I want this research to raise awareness with care homes, social workers and health practitioners of the need to take it seriously and see that pets are members of people’s families and are given the same regard in maintaining older people’s well-being.”

The importance of addressing the psychological and emotional needs of older people is acknowledged in the National Service Framework for Older People. And in 2006, an inquiry from Age Concern and the Mental Health Foundation found that having pets was one of the important factors in promoting well-being in older people.

Missing the point

But despite buzzwords such as “well-being” and “choice” coming from government in its policies for older people, the importance of pets in maintaining an older person’s well-being is still disregarded.

“We are missing the point that growing older shouldn’t focus on what we can’t do anymore but what we can retain in our lives that is important to us,” McNicholas says. “We should hang on to everything that is meaningful to them.”

Anchor Trust is one provider that has pet policies in its 102 residential homes and 700 sheltered housing schemes. The organisation has had a proactive approach for the past 10 years since it did some work on the importance of animals with Johnny Morris, who presented BBC TV’s Animal Magic. It estimated that 140,000 pets were given up each year as a result of older pet owners going into accommodation that refused pets. Of those, about 38,000 were put to sleep.

Care home managers who are opposed to pet ownership often claim they will be overrun with animals. But Jane Ashcroft, managing director of care services at Anchor Trust, says homes that accept pets normally have only two or three at any one time.

“We always do an assessment to check that the pet is properly looked after and it won’t cause problems,” Ashcroft says.

Saying that, Ashcroft is unaware of any pets that have been turned away from Anchor facilities. “If someone is living at home with a pet then it must be liveable with. It comes down to the manager, resident and the others living there to look at the practicalities to make it work.”

So, to reinvent the phrase, “a pet is for life not just for Christmas” should mean the life of the owner, as much as the pet.

Key findings

  • Only 29% of care facilities routinely allow pets.
  •  More than one-third of residential care homes and sheltered housing units have seen signs of distress in residents after giving up a pet to move into care.
  • l 76% of care facilities do not ask prospective residents whether they have a pet and 65% have no formal policy on pets.

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