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Using pets to support healthy ageing – pilot study

Pets & Ageing

Can pets cure loneliness? Research driven by the National Centre for Healthy Ageing (NCHA), a federally funded partnership between Monash University and Peninsula Health, will investigate whether bonding with animals can reduce loneliness and social isolation in at-risk groups.

Loneliness and isolation stem from a reduced sense of belonging and lack of social connections, and risk factors increase as we age. Members of excluded groups or minorities, such as international students or refugees and recent migrants, are also at higher risk due to a lack of social interactions or networks.

The new study aims to explore the way pets and the human-animal bond may reduce this sense of loneliness and social isolation in these groups. 

Monash University researcher Dr Em Bould* has been building evidence of the impact of human-animal interactions for six years, and will use new NCHA funding to expand this important work to older people and those from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Dr Bould will conduct a pilot study on the benefits of regular interaction with others centred around a shared interest in animals and it is just one of 13 NCHA Living Labs projects that have secured combined funding of $4.77 million.

Although aged care settings have incorporated animals to relieve residents’ loneliness and isolation, Dr Bould said there had been little objective study of pets’ impact in aged care, and none into the impact of animal activities in refugee and migrant groups.

Two previous studies by Dr Bould examined the effectiveness of animal-assisted activity programs to facilitate conversations with community members. Using pet dogs as catalysts to social connection, they highlighted the potential for animal programs to encourage human interactions.

“Regular conversations with others is an important way of staying connected, which in turn can improve physical and mental health and wellbeing,” Dr Bould said.

In this new research, Dr Bould and their team want to understand whether a shared interest in animals, explored in various ways, can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

From May next year Dr Bould will enrol volunteers in the Pets and People (PaPs) Program, a low-cost animal-assisted activity group intervention proposed for aged care settings, also ensuring that migrant and refugee communities are included.

“Loneliness and social isolation can lead to detrimental effects on physical health, increased incidence of depression and suicide. The ultimate aim of the program is to use pets to support social connection and healthy ageing, and we are looking forward to seeing the results from this important research,” Dr Bould said.

Up to four partner aged care facilities across Melbourne and Queensland will host a PaPs group, with about 36 participants from the three target groups. Allied health students across Monash and James Cook Universities will help implement the program. The results of the research will inform national approaches to tackling loneliness and isolation for our ageing population.

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