LIKE MANY people in Ireland, I'm a regular visitor to a couple of nursing homes. I have close relatives in full time residential care. I'm pleased to say that there's increasing recognition that animals can play an important role in such places.
I've seen the benefits first hand when an Irish Therapy Dog happens to be visiting one of the nursing homes at the same time as myself. It's such a pleasure to meet the friendly, tail-wagging Labrador as he ambles amongst the residents with his handler beside him. The dog adds a bright note of optimism and cheerfulness to the atmosphere of the place. The dog visits once a week, and many of the residents look forward to his arrival with enthusiasm.
Attitudes to dogs in nursing homes have changed rapidly in the last decade. The Healthy Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) is the independent authority responsible for quality, safety and accountability in residential services for children, older people and people with disabilities in Ireland.
HIQA is broadly supportive of animals in nursing homes, recognising the quality of life and health benefits brought by animalassisted therapy to people living in residential care setting. Of course there are risk assessments to be carried out, and control measures to be put in place, but when done in the right way, there's much to be gained from contact with animals.
The positive effect of pets for older people starts a long time before a nursing home is needed. Many studies have demonstrated the benefits: pet owners have a lower incidence of nursing home admission and improved general health (with fewer GP visits and a reduction in prescriptions).
The responsibility of owning a pet helps to form a useful daily routine, encouraging older people to get up in the morning, prepare meals, exercise and go to the shops to buy supplies. It also prompts them to keep the house warm: they may not worry about getting cold themselves, but they want to make sure that their pets are comfortable. Pet ownership has a strong protective effect against loneliness and despair, allowing people to receive the type of unconditional affection and tactile contact that is often otherwise missing in their lives. Pets give people a sense of purpose and a feeling of being needed.
Pets also facilitate social interaction; it has been shown that they can help to create friendly neighbourhoods. If you think about it, aren't you far more likely to talk to a person with a good-natured dog than a stranger on their own?
There's only one problem with the strong bond that forms between older people and their pets: when the time in life arrives for that person to move into sheltered accommodation. Unfortunately, many pet owners are forced to give up their pets, causing immense emotional distress.
We all know that moving house is stressful for anyone. Moving from your own home into sheltered housing or residential care must surely represent an extreme version of this stress. Can you imagine shutting your front door behind you for the last time, in the knowledge that you will never come back and you are losing your full independence? It's already a sensitive stage of life, with people suffering a series of losses: retiring from their daily job, living on less income, suffering poorer health, and perhaps grieving the death of friends or relatives. This is a time when the comfort given by a pet is more needed than ever before. Yet the "authorities" often seems to insist that pets are taken away from people who are not strong enough to protest.
In the UK, every year around 140,000 people are forced to give up their pets when moving into care homes. I cannot find figures for Ireland, but on a proportional scale, this would mean around seven thousand people. It's estimated that around one in four of these animals is euthanased: as well as the stress this causes to their owners, this has a serious animal welfare aspect, adding another couple of thousand to the number of healthy pets (such as unwanted strays) that die unnecessarily in Ireland.
So what's the answer? Organisations in the UK have been taking the lead over there. The Cinnamon Trust is an organisation dedicated to making it easier for elderly people to keep pets, with a nationwide team of volunteers who help out in many different ways, from caring for pets temporarily while people are in hospital to offering emotional and practical help when it's time to go into a residential home. Private organisations are also helping to change attitudes: the Anchor Housing Trust, the largest provider of housing and care homes for older people in the UK, has a strongly positive pet policy. The organisation has had plenty of positive experiences of pet keeping amongst its residents and it actively encourages other groups to follow its example.
In Ireland, traditional attitudes still tend to prevail, but there are increasing numbers of examples of pet-friendly attitudes in residential homes. Nursing Homes Ireland (NHI), the body that represents private and voluntary nursing homes, is planning an article on the subject in an upcoming newsletter.
If you know someone who is being pressured into giving up a pet because they're going into residential care, please encourage them not to give up their animal. Pets are good for people, and they're never more needed than in the delicate, sensitive phase of advancing old age.