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A South Australian researcher believes nursing homes should embrace the health benefits of pets and allow residents to take their loved ones into aged care following a new study that revealed the presence of pets can help prevent suicide among people over 60.

Led by University of South Australia health sciences lecturer Dr Janette Young, the study interviewed 35 people aged 60 to 83 and asked them – “How do your pets influence your health?”

One third of respondents reported they were “actively suicidal” or “significantly traumatised” but that the sense of purpose and social connection offered by pets including dogs, cats and lizards gave them a reason to live.

“Pets offer a counter to many older people’s sense of usefulness,” Dr Young explained.

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

The findings have spurred Dr Young to call for the introduction of pet fostering in nursing homes, who currently ban pets, and even allowing residents to take their own pets with them when they enter aged care.

Dr Young is pushing to introduce a new model into an aged care facility in South Australia, where residents and staff can foster pets.

“Aged care facilities operate 24/7, they could ensure an animal is being cared for, that’s my vision,” Dr Young said.

“What I’m pursuing is for people to not only be able to get animals and pets just visiting them in aged care facilities but for people to be able to take their own pets into aged care with them.”

Dr Young said researchers had not anticipated their initial question on how pets influence health would lead to participants revealing suicide attempts or thoughts about suicide.

A large proportion of people interviewed in the study were men, with one commenting:

“I actually realised that the only thing keeping me alive, was these (nods to dogs) and the bird, giving me a chance to get out of bed in the morning.”

Dr Young said the blocking of pets in aged care often happens early when people are still living independently in villages.

Her research found pets could play a protective role in older people experiencing complex health problems, social isolation and loneliness.

“We need to be taking these human animal relationships more seriously in that whole space of humanising aged care,” she said.’

“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 downsize 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.”