“This elderly lady loved her little dog; she cared for her and whenever we visited the facility you could see her walking her Pekingese, stopping to have chats with other people out and about. Sadly the pet passed away and a few short months later, the owner also passed away.”
“He turned to me and said, ‘look he shook my hand’. Older people are often so deprived of touch that they marvel at such a simple action. This is where caring for and loving an animal does wonders.”
These are just two of the stories told by Lesley de Klerk, founder of Paws for People Therapy Dogs, on how important animals are in the lives of retirees.
It is a well-documented fact that human beings have kept animals for companionship purposes for centuries. This valued relationship does, however, become ever more important for those whose family is living across the world, whose kids fail to make enough time to visit their loved ones in retirement complexes, or even those who have lost their circle of lifelong friends over the years.
As de Klerk explains, pets and the presence of a living being to nurture evoke a will to live in elderly people. These individuals have a reason to be up and about, outside walking their dogs with other community members.
“The impact goes way further than just companionship – it is good for the wellbeing of retirees,” says de Klerk. “Older people, such as those in wheelchairs, for example, are motivated to get out and about more, getting exercise. Studies have even shown that these individuals use less pain medication.”
According to Dr Mareanna le Roux, lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University and chair at Pets as Therapy (PAT) South Africa, the transition from being a working individual with an active social life and responsibilities to the loss of a family home of years when you retire is extremely traumatic and can even cause depression in some individuals.
“Attempting this transition without a beloved pet can be problematic to say the least,” says le Roux. “The pet might be the only form of communication for that person throughout a day. It definitely alleviates the feelings of isolation and loneliness and goes quite some way in improving the standard of living.”
Thandazile Mtetwa, clinical psychologist at the Neurocognitive and Geriatrics unit of Weskoppies Hospital and lecturer at the University of Pretoria, says that most elderly understand this life change, and they get that everyone is living their lives. They do, however, feel abandoned as they experience this change as if nobody has time for them anymore; they are not a part of society.
“If illnesses then creep in it can cause a further disconnect from the rest of society. People tend to lose patience as these illnesses lead to a slow down in thinking and speech,” adds Mtetwa. “They can look like they have nothing to offer but often still have a lot going on mentally. The presence of a pet then becomes really important. It is good for them to have someone to need them.”
Le Roux says that if there is no other alternative than to go to a retirement complex with a no-pets policy then it is important that the loved ones do all they reasonably can to ensure that the pet is rehomed safely.
“My advice would be to include your loved one in the process; they need to feel like they have had a part in safely homing their beloved companion,” she adds. “Whatever you do, do not dump the pet at the SPCA as it is important for the person to know that the animal will be loved and well taken care of.”
Mtetwa says that at this stage it is important to note that an entire mind shift is required. Culturally and socially people do not understand that pets are not “just pets”. Caregivers, family and friends will often look at the elderly person mourning the loss of a pet and say something like, “Why are you crying, it is just a dog; here, I’ll get you a bird to fill the gap”.
“To the owner the dog that had to be rehomed has a name and personality; it is definitely not just a pet and to insinuate this is extremely insensitive,” explains Mtetwa. “Society needs to be aware of this and emphathise with the person having to adjust to this new way of life.”
That’s exactly it, retirees moving to a new home in a retirement complex where there is a no-pets policy will be forced to readjust and find ways to deal with their feelings of loss. What should be done to make this transition easier?
De Klerk warns against the common piece of advice of arranging regular meet-ups for the pet and your loved one. “Constantly reuniting the dog and elderly is traumatic for both. The dog is not able to settle with his new family, which is unkind and very stressful for the dog, and the owner is sad every time they have to say goodbye again,” explains De Klerk.
What is more, says De Klerk, allowing visits from pets could potentially be a health hazard, especially when it comes to visits to the frail care centre where the individuals are often immune-compromised. The therapy dogs that De Klerk’s organisation, Paws for People SA, take to visit individuals in retirement centres, and specifically frail care centres, are kept to a stringent hygiene regime, making them safe for the individuals in frail care.
Sending photos to loved ones of their pet happy in a new home might also not be the best answer, warns De Klerk. It depends on the individual, but De Klerk says that she has seen a wide variation of reactions. Some are happy to see the photos of the beloved pet while others find it almost just as traumatising as the initial separation when the pet was rehomed.
De Klerk says that she really sees no reason why a small- or medium-sized dog should not be allowed in retirement complexes, especially for those individuals still capable of looking after the pet. According to her, things to consider when determining one’s ability to look after a pet includes financial considerations: Are you able to comfortably afford the food bill and any medical or grooming care the pet may need, and then, of course, physical ability too.
“Care should be taken to avoid abuse of the animal,” warns De Klerk. “If an elderly person is physically incapable of looking after a dog then the person is unlikely to be able to keep a bird or fish since they will not be able to perform functions such as cleaning the cage or tank.
“To be entirely fair to retirement facilities, it is often the ones where pets were allowed, and then had to learn the hard way, where the policy was changed to not allow pets,” says De Klerk. “When retirees become sick there is nobody to take care of the pets so you have a case of staff having to take care of the dogs. Again, having unkempt, dirty dogs really does pose a potential health risk.”
Le Roux says that in her mind the best thing for all concerned is to have a situation where the pet is able to move with the owner to the retirement complex. Even if it comes with a condition such as the pets-allowed policy is only valid for the life of the pet and cannot be replaced upon death.
“I know in some cases it can become physically difficult for the elderly to look after their pets, but remember that this is what these people live for.”
Le Roux’s creative solution for this is organising groups of volunteers from the retirement complex who are still more physical to rotate in offering services to take care of the pets, and to take them for walks. This not only solves the problem of the pets’ care requirements but also empowers other residents by giving them the feeling of being needed by someone.
The benefits of a loving relationship with dogs are too many to mention, even in frail care cases it has been proven to make a significant difference. It seems that the only truly happy middle ground is to allow pets and even be accommodating to those individuals who are too sick to look after their own pets by working with organisations like PAT and Paws for People.
Additional reporting: Mariette Steynberg