One of the human characteristics with which we are all familiar is our association with animals. Many people have grown up with pets as children and frequently acquire their own as soon as they get a permanent address and a long-term relationship. You only have to visit a park or virtually any other open space to find people walking their dogs, whatever the weather. Walk through a park on your own and you may get a smile or a good morning from others doing the same. Make the same trip with a dog, almost any dog, and you’ll get a conversation, lots of conversations.
Given the obvious importance of pets, or companion animals, in the lives of older people it is unfair and vaguely inhuman to insist that when a new resident comes to live in a care home that their pet is left behind. Not only has the new resident lost their home with all the familiarity that entails, they have also lost an important part of their life. A study in 1986 showed that 95% of older people talked to their pet, with 82% saying that their pet helps when they feel sad or are in pain. Principle 2 of the Eden Alternative states “An Eden elder-centred community commits to creating a human habitat where life revolves around continuing and close contact with plants animals and children. It is these relationships that provide the young and old with a pathway to a life worth living.” Implicit in this Principle is the concept that a normal environment contains all these elements.
Fortunately, many homes will now do their best to accommodate a long-term pet who arrives with a new resident. Perversely, many assisted living or sheltered housing facilities have a blanket ban on all pets. Clearly not all pets can be accommodated and the welfare of the other residents has to be a primary consideration. However, it is rare to find a home on the Eden Alternative UK Register of Homes that does not have a resident cat or cats, budgies, parrots or rabbits. Dogs are less common as permanent residents, although it is not unusual to find a dog that comes to work with its staff member owner and goes home with them at the end of their shift. During a visit to a care home in the West Country last year we heard a story about just such a dog who had been a regular visitor to the home but had died. After a very short time the
question began to be asked of the staff member, ‘when are you going to get a new dog?’. Although having a dog or cat roaming about the home needs careful management, there are many stories where the introduction of a small dog or cat to a resident who is withdrawn, clearly depressed and resigned to a miserable end to their life has had a dramatic effect on their mood, their involvement with other aspects of life in the home and their relationships with staff and other residents. Ultimately, happy residents require less care and attention than unhappy residents.
There is no doubt of the value of ‘pat dog’ programmes to homes. Residents often enjoy the visit, although for some of them it accentuates the loss of their own pet. The problem is that exposure to a dog or dogs for an hour or two is not going to allow the development of a relationship between resident and the dog. Many homes encourage families to bring the family dog with them when they visit, particularly if the resident has lived with the dog prior to moving into the home. The recognition of the resident by the dog is often worth more than the rest of the visit put together.
Finally, just to emphasise the importance of pets in care homes, Kay Mitchell, the manager of Penylan House, an Eden Registered care home in Cardiff told a conference in 2016 that as part of her job she has attended a lot of funerals of residents. She said that the home’s resident parrot, Poppy, is mentioned more often by families than the manager! It’s difficult to measure the value that pets bring to a care or nursing home, although the benefits to residents of well managed pets is clear to see.