Pets can protect against suicide in older people

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  Last updated March 18, 2020 at 11:05 am


According to new research, the mere presence of a dog, cat, or even birds could be enough to stop some older people from taking their own life.

pets_elderly_mental health

Pets can create a sense of purpose and promote social connections amongst other people. Credit: Westend61

Why This Matters: Pets can be a vital lifeline for older people.

It’s a sad fact that suicide rates among people over 60 are the highest of any age group in Australia, but a new study from the University of South Australia has found an unexpected saviour – pets.

In a paper published in the journal Anthrozoos, lead author Janette Young, a UniSA Health Science lecturer and colleagues describe the unexpected findings from 35 interviews with older people (aged 60-83 years) on the impact of pets on their health.

Pets play a key role in mental health

More than one third (12) who reported being “actively suicidal” or “significantly traumatised” discussed how their pets gave them a reason to live.

The participants reported that taking responsibility for an animal by feeding, grooming and exercising it, gave them purpose.

One participant reported that if it wasn’t for his pet dog, Elvis, he would have likely “sit at home here in the four walls.”

“Even now, there’s times when I don’t want to leave the house … but I’m forced to go out because Elvis wants to go,” he says.

Feeling “known” by their pet was as well as the constant physical prescence of a pet was a crucial part in mitigating the loneliness and despair they felt.

Also: Much expression. Many feels. Dogs use facial expressions to communicate with us

“Pets are just wonderful companions,” one participant says. “Just being there in your dark times, loving you, knowing you and appreciating you is a powerful thing, offering a sense of protection.”

“They sort of make you feel, you love them and they doubly love you back and you just feel, made to feel wanted and stuff like that,” another participant says.

Men, in particular, identified their pets as playing a key role in their mental health, says Young.

“This pattern seems significant given the higher suicide rate among men, which increases with age in western countries.”

Pet accommodation in aged care needs to be re-examined

Older people are more likely to experience complex health needs, social isolation and loneliness, and fear of burdening their families. For these reasons alone, pets can play a protective role, the researchers say.

“Pets offer a counter to many older people’s sense of uselessness,” says Young.

“Animals need looking after which creates a sense of purpose for older people, and they also promote social connections with other people.”

The dearth of pet accommodation in aged care should be re-examined in light of these findings, the researchers say.

Deeper: Should aged care facilities be pet friendly?

“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 spouse or downside their home.

“For some people, the loss of a pet may mean the loss of a significant mental health support, one that was perhaps even protecting them from ending their life.”

However, Young says not all pet owners will fit this profile. “One pat of a dog per day isn’t going to work for everyone. And just giving an animal to someone hoping it will make them feel needed, is risky for both humans and animals.”

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