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A report from the Animal Welfare League claims about two-thirds of Australian households have a pet in the home, but less than one-in-five residential aged care facilities allow pets to live with their owners.

Tracey Silvester from Envigor, Seasons‘ care partner, and Ian Henschke is Chief Advocate for National Seniors Australia chatted with Loretta Ryan on ABC Brisbane Radio Breakfast show on August 4 about the issues surrounding pets in aged care and ways that aged care homes in Australia can improve their approach to allowing pets into their facilities.

Key points discussed:

  • Low percentage of pets in aged care, despite Australia’s high level of pet ownership
  • Should providers allow pets in aged care
  • Health and happiness benefits of pets
  • Problems that can be caused by pets in aged care
  • Rights of people who don’t like pets
  • Support services for seniors staying their own homes with pets
  • RSPCA experience with pet surrenders due to moving to aged care
  • Funding options for pets in aged care – what needs to change?
  • Looking at areas of improvement in the industry
  • Visiting pets programs
Related content: Benefits of pet friendly aged care


National Seniors Australia


Delta Dogs

Golden Heart Seniors Pet Support Program


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Loretta: A report from the animal welfare league claims about two-thirds of Australian households have a pet in the home. But what would you do if you had to move into an aged care facility, or maybe your elderly relative is thinking about moving and they have a pet. Should pets be allowed in aged care homes? Only one in five residential aged care facilities allow pets to live with their owners and it's pretty sad, isn't it, if you're forced to say goodbye to the only companion you have.

Has that happened to you or someone you know? We'd love to hear your story this morning. 1300 222 612 or maybe you are in an aged care facility which allows pets. Give me a call 1300 222 612. To talk about this a little further this morning I have Ian Henschke, Chief Advocate for National Seniors in Australia and Tracey Silvester, Manager of a Home Care Provider Company here in Queensland and a registered nurse.
Good morning.

Ian: Good morning.

Tracey: Good morning.

Loretta: Firstly, Tracey, to you, less than one in five residential aged care facilities allow pets to live with their owners. Does that surprise you? That figure?

Tracey: No, not really. I think largely because historically the funding processes that occur in residential aged care, particularly, haven't really allowed for the care that the pet might need in the aged care, if the older person actually can't provide the care for the pet themselves. That hasn't happened. I think as we move towards a more consumer directed environment in aged care facilities, and certainly the funding mechanisms in government in the way that they determine policy for aged care services is going to need to think about that because consumers are going to ask, and really demand, that they be able to bring their pets with them when they move in.

Loretta: And you're the manager of a home care provider. Have you seen that happening already?

Tracey: Yes, yes. There's a number of providers here in Queensland who actually allow people to bring pets with them when they move into aged care services. We always say, you know, shop around. If moving out of your family home is what you need to do because you can't continue to live there anymore and you want to take your pet with you, don't assume that you can't because there are providers who are now starting to understand that that's an important part of the older person's life to be able to bring their pet with them.

Loretta: Do you think that we will see an increase, then, in providers allowing them to bring their pets?

Tracey: I would hope so. I think that given we know that the impact of loneliness on people's physical health is quite significant. I think it's particularly an issue for people who are widowed, so their pet is often the only link that they have to their past life or their partner who's no longer with them. Having to make a decision to move out of the family home is a really significant issue for people, and it's really life changing and can be quite distressing for people. Then to have to say, "Well, sorry, you can't bring your dog or your cat or whatever it is with you," it's quite a traumatic time for people. I think it will happen that aged care services are going to have to think about that.

Loretta: Ian Henschke is the Chief Advocate for National Seniors Australia. Ian, what do you think? Should our residents in aged care facilities be allowed to take their pets?

Ian: I think you just got to ask yourself the question ‘is it right or is it fair to say to someone you can't do something?’ I think the issue here is, well in the broader sense, one of human rights. I mean, we know, for example, and we just heard from Tracey that loneliness is a huge problem. Now we know that loneliness in one recent study is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of health outcomes. There have been studies done in America which have shown you've got a much higher rate of premature death if you're lonely. If you take away something that someone had that was their friend, their companion, and that is actually affecting their health, you've got to ask yourself well, is that in the best interest of the person? Clearly it's not.

Look, this time next year there's going to be the sixth national elder abuse conference being held in Brisbane. In fact, it was a very successful conference held this year. Some of the things that they're now looking at, what is the definition of abuse? If it's neglect, which is what has been included in the definition accepted around the world, then you're neglecting someone's needs. From an advocacy point of view, I would say that aged care facilities would have to start offering that and if they are not offering it, they have to have a very good reason why they're not doing it.

We know that there are some certain things such as occupational health and safety and health issues and all the rest of it. If you can address those, which are relatively easy because some aged care facilities are doing it, you have to start asking yourself well why are we doing this? The other issue, of course, that's there is we just heard about consumer directed care. Now, that's the buzz word that's around at the moment. That is where the consumer, I don't particularly like the word, but that's where the person who is in aged care says what they would like. I'd be urging people to look more into that so they'd know what their rights are and also, you can do what is known as an advanced care directive. Before you actually even get in the situation where you're going into aged care, write down what you want, what your wishes are, make sure your friends, family, relatives know that's what you want. Then say if you want a pet when you go into aged care, make sure that happens.

Loretta: We're talking pets and aged care this morning. What do you think? Should you be able to take your pet with you if you move into an aged care facility? Maybe you have experience with a member of your family already. 1300 222 612. That's 1300 222 612. Would love to hear from you.
Tracey Silvester, I suppose we're talking about all pets, not just dogs, cats, birds, everything. It covers a wide area doesn't it?

Tracey: Yes, yes.

Loretta: Have you seen cases where it's really caused distress and I suppose arguments in the family?

Tracey: Yeah, and sometimes that happens is that family, we get that all the time with the work that I do. We have families who have got different desires for their family member as they need to move into aged care. We spend a little bit of time, sometimes, almost advocating on behalf of the older person so that their choices and wishes are respected as part of the process of really changing their life. I think that family members do need to remember that it is, if somebody has still got capacity to make their own choices, and as Ian has said before, if they have an advanced care directive which says, "I want to keep my pet," then we need to respect that. It is a basic human right. It is, I think, almost as important as the right to have enough food to eat and to have a shower. That you actually have a choice about where you live and how you live your life. Particularly as you age. I don't think we've done that well enough in this country to date. I think that we've got a generation of aged care consumers right now who perhaps aren't as used to making choices about the things that they want as the next wave of consumers coming through.
I think as baby boomers start to need to use the aged care system, we will find, as providers, a lot more demanded of us.

Loretta: Yeah, a lot more changes to deal with.

Tracey: Yes, yes.

Loretta: All right, what about the people in aged care who don't like pets? There are people who don't like dogs, cats. There are people that might be allergic to them or might be just fearful of them. What about their rights? Can they say, "Well, no. I don't want someone with a dog living near me."

Tracey: That comes down to the policy of the aged care service. I'm not underestimating at all, I don't want to downplay the logistics of looking after a pet of an older person living in an aged care environment. It is tricky. It can be difficult. Yes, you do have people that don't like pets. The way we work it with the organisation I work with, we try and, we don't have huge, big dogs. We've got size limits on the pets that come in. We also ask that the residents keep their pets under control, so we don't allow dogs to roam freely in the service. We ask them to keep their pets on leashes.

We also, because we are a pet friendly organisation, if people don't like pets then they can choose not to live with us. Or they can choose to live in an apartment or a unit where there aren't as many pets, perhaps, in that part of the community. It does come back to everything is about choice. In the same way that I might choose to have loud music on. Well there's a way that we can manage that. It's a bit like any sort of communal living arrangement. It's about being respectful of your neighbours, but understanding that they have the right to make choices in the same way that you do.

Loretta: Ian Henschke from National Seniors. What about the elderly people who choose to stay in their homes? There is a push for that, as well, if you can stay in your own home. Are there support services that they can access for pet care?

Ian: That's a very good point because when we've done our surveys at National Seniors, the majority of the people want to stay in their home. What we're seeing, and this is probably one of the bigger issues we should talk about this morning is the fact that when people do go into aged care now they are much older and frailer than they were in the past, the average age, the entering age is at least around 84 and people are going in, one in two have got some form of dementia. There is a lot of difficulty as we've heard before, and I think it's very important to sort of recognize that. I mean, the idea of a large dog pushing somebody over, I mean these are the sort of issues you've got to talk about. That's one issue.

But if you're staying in your own home and you want to be able to keep your own pet, you're at what they would call a level three or level four package at the moment. That means you've still got the level of capacity where we'd hope you would be able to look after the pet with some help from other people. As we've seen in the past, you know, family and friends they're always out there helping and caring. It's a matter of looking at what someone needs and realising just how important a pet is. We know, for example, that when someone has a pet around them that their blood pressure is lower, they're less likely to feel stressed. They get great joy out of it. I mean, even pets being taken into aged care facilities just so that people can have a pat of a dog or a cat can make a huge difference to people in there.

As you know, Michael Beattie who works with RSPCA in Queensland. If he's listening this morning, hello Michael. I know he's been a bit on the sick list. Michael, and National Seniors, have been working together through the RSPCA in Queensland because people actually even just want to go for a tour of the RSPCA, actually see the animals there. I mean, the connection between human and animals is so strong. Only recently the aged care minister went to a facility down on the Gold Coast where there were horses nearby. One of the things that we're doing there was allowing the residents to pat the horses and be able to go over, they had these animals near the aged care establishment.

I think this is why when you said at the very beginning, Loretta, that two out of three Australians have a pet. Well, you know, that's a big number of people isn't it. I think that's why, I think the discussion we're having this morning is so important. We need to sort of think about reasons of how we can do things, not why we shouldn't. Why we shouldn't have something. How can we make it so that people are happier? I think it's a great idea that we're talking about this because there are five and a half million baby boomers coming through the system and if you remember they used to get out in the street and protest over nuclear disarmament.

Think about people like Peter Garret, they're now in their mid to late 60s. When they get into an aged care facility and they say, "You're not having your pet." Do you think they're going to accept it?

Loretta: No, I can just see Peter Garrett out there protesting that. But you're right, the question should be what can we do, yes, to make aged care, I guess, more attractive for people so they're not so scared of it and make them comfortable? Let's talk about pets. 1300 222 612 Give me a call. If you have an experience about your pets and aged care facility, or how you could suggest some changes. We have a text message from Jen. "Would love to see a new model of aged care. More smaller aged care facilities dotted throughout all suburbs. This could improve the options for pet friendly placements. Perhaps a catchment type model so elderly people could move from their own home into the suburb where they have lived."

That's a great idea.

Tracey: Yes, it is.

Ian: Fantastic.

Loretta: You've got familiar surroundings. Now, you were talking there, Ian, about the RSPCA. We haven't got Michael Beattie, but we do have Mark Townend from the RSPCA. Michael is still a little bit unwell. Mark, you've been listening to the conversation, and you would have seen, I guess, people and pets come into the RSPCA which have had to have been surrendered.

Mark: Yes, I have, Loretta. Good morning, Ian and Tracey. Both of those speakers this morning have said exactly the same things that get raised all the time. I must say in the last I think only five or six years, between people moving out of houses, apartments into aged care, there's been a huge difference now that they are accepting pets. It's even in the housing market. We used to see, people moved an apartment block and a couple of people in the 50 apartment block would have pets. Majority, you know, two-thirds like is the population outside have them. It's the same thing with aged care. We know it's a problem, we know it's difficult to deal with logistically sometimes. People don't like pets. You're in close proximity to other people who don't like them. The wrong pets try to get into aged care facility sometimes. I think people are getting wiser to that and the system is in place and the people are accepting. How are we going to make it work? How are we going to accommodate everybody's needs?

Loretta: Have you seen cases, though, where pets have been surrendered to the RSPCA because the elderly person was going into aged care?

Mark: We have, but we've actually, in the last few years there's been lots of alternatives come about where it's very few now. The majority of the time between the families, because even in the early days other parts of the family members may have lived in an apartment and they couldn't have the pets. Well now they can because there's been a complete change in body corporate, their views. They know they've been challenged, the administrative tribunal and they've lost so that's why they accept pets sometimes, now.

Loretta: But Mark, does it always work with family members, though, if a person has been looking after that pet sort of most of their life and it's become their companion, then a family member tries to look after it. Does it always work? Because it's a big change for the pet, as well.
Mark: It's individual cases, Loretta, because like you say if you had an elderly person with an elderly pet and then a young family with young kids, it's certainly not appropriate quite often and doesn't work. There's alternatives. Between RSPCA helping to find alternative adoption homes, I think the biggest thing is just in the last five or six years, the aged care has really changed. In their accreditation process, they see, they score good points by having alternative interests for residents. I think that makes a big difference, now. Everyone is realising you can't separate it. In the old days, get rid of the pet, go into aged care, that's the way it is.

The whole holistic approach to aged care to being just an alternative home rather than an old person's home is how the mindset has changed and pets are a part of that process.

Loretta: We've got some more text messages coming through, but give us a call if you want to join us and have a chat about pets and aged care. 1300 222 612 or in fact, about aged care in general. This text from Nick, "Many aged care providers are already stretching their funding and residents co-contributions to breaking point. I would love to see pets in the facilities I work in, but I really wonder who will pay for and provide their upkeep when the resident can no longer do so or if they're unable to do so from the start. I can't see the government including this in the ACFI funding assessment."


Tracey: I can talk to that. I think that this is a whole conversation for another day about how aged care services are funded in this country. The ACFI as a funding instrument is about 20 years old and there's been no changes to that in the 20 years. Now, the government is doing some work around that at the moment and is, from a policy perspective at least, starting to look at how consumer directed care, as I mentioned earlier, will be included in a residential aged care environment.

As part of that, I suspect they will need to include things like how you build pet care into the person's care plan. For community care, so for people still living in their own homes or people living in retirement villages, that capacity is there now through their home care packages and certainly with the organisation I work for, we build pet care into somebody's care plan. If they have a pet and they're not able to look after it we will use some of their home care package to fund looking after that pet. That might be feeding them, taking them for walks, getting grooming done.

We have one lady that we provide services to who is housebound and had two dogs all her life. We fund the cost of having those dogs groomed every couple of weeks as part of her home care package.

Loretta: Yeah, and Ian, did you want to add to that?

Ian: Yes, I've taken on board all points. We do need more funding for aged care. We need more and better trained workers. These are things that government will actually have to think about. What we do know, and this is something that I think they do have to think about, is that every second voter in Australia is now over the age of 50 and they'll soon know someone who is in aged care, if they haven't already had to deal with that. Then they'll say to themselves, well why are we choosing not to do it the best way we can?

Even if you look at the figures at the moment, there was a very big audit done recently and they found that aged care services were pet friendly at a very different rate. For example, Tasmania 35% had residential aged care facilities which had residents that could keep their pets. Whereas in Victoria and New South Wales it was 14%. I haven't got the figures for Queensland, but if you can see, you know, you almost got three times the difference between a couple of states. It's clear that Tasmania is, as a smaller state, thinking more about the people and their needs. Maybe they've got smaller facilities as one of your callers suggested and they're doing it better.

We've got to often not just look at the money and say, "Well, do we need more money to do it?" Can we actually say, "Well, how can we do it if someone's doing it better? Maybe we should learn what they're doing in Tasmania and say why is Tasmania nearly three times better than the mainland states?"

Loretta: Yeah, it's 10 to 9:00. We're talking about pets and aged care. Let's go to the phones. We have Elva on Bribie has a story. Hello Elva.

Elva: Good morning, good morning. Four years ago I decided to go into over 50s. Of course, I couldn't take my boy with me. He was given to people not far away who got in touch with me. I was so surprised. She was so happy to have him.

Loretta: He was a dog?

Elva: Little dog, Teddy. Yes. They were so pleased to have him and I knew that he would be happy there because she was just so happy having him.

Loretta: But what about you, Elva? How did that affect you?

Elva: The stress on me is unbelievable. I mean, it was four years ago but I see a little white dog and I well up. I can fully understand why you couldn't have a pet in this facility.

Loretta: Why's that?

Elva: No, I fully understand that. How you're going to get around it I don't know.

Loretta: Elva, were there any other options for you, though, when you were looking into a facility?

Elva: Not really. I didn't need aged care, which is good.

Loretta: Yeah, could you ever get to see your dog?

Elva: I was asked, I was offered but I didn't want to do that.

Loretta: It was too upsetting.

Elva: No, no, I'd heard from the lady and they must love him because I got a letter to say if I didn't answer it in 70 days the chip would belong to them. He's been adopted by them.

Loretta: Well, we feel like crying for you, Elva, actually in the studio at the moment.

Elva: Oh, it's terrible. But I do have a budgie.

Loretta: Well, that's good.

Elva: Oh, it's entertaining.

Loretta: Yeah, that's entertaining. You can teach budgies to talk, you know?

Elva: No one can talk over me, love.

Loretta: All right. Elva, thank you so much for sharing your story.

Elva: Ah, thank you. Bye, bye.

Loretta: Bye, bye. We have another caller, as well. Peta from Upper Brookfield. Hi Peta.

Peta: Hi, how are you doing?

Loretta: What's your story?

Peta: Look, I actually, I have a dog, Nila, and Nila is a story dog. We go up to the school and we spend an hour two mornings a week reading to the kids. I just wondered what the rules around dogs with aged care actually was?

Loretta: Okay, Tracey, you might be able to answer that.

Peta: In terms of taking Nila to one of the facilities and they can have a pat and a cuddle, because every time a bus rolls up at the Kenmore shop she just gravitates and they all have a pat and a cuddle anyway. I think she's someone who could enjoy doing that say once a month. She would be quite happy and I think it's mostly aged people that she sees. We've been to different coffee shops and a lot of older people just gravitate towards her and have a pat and a cuddle.

Ian: That's a great idea. I think it's a brilliant idea.

Peta: I just wondered what it was because I did look into Delta and I found that Delta, I thought, was a bit excessive in the amount of blood tests that were required. It's not that I'm not happy, Nila goes to the Vet as needed and checked annually, certainly. That's not the issue in that sense. With Delta there was a lot more regulatory testing and I just thought you know, this is a bit excessive. Is it the same to go into aged care facilities?

Loretta: Tracey?

Tracey: I think what I would do is approach a couple of the local facilities in your area, Peta, and see whether they would be happy for you to bring your dog into visit. We have a lot of people that bring their dogs in to visit in the organisation I work with. I would just approach them and say look, would you be happy I've got this awesome dog. They would probably want you to show a certificate of vaccination and all those sorts of things if that's what they're interested in. Certainly give the local facilities a call and see if they would be happy for you to take your dog in there even once a month.

Peta: Yeah, okay. I'll give that a go, because I mean she's done the accreditation to be a story dog.

Tracey: Cool.

Peta: She's managed to walk past five lunch boxes, one with salami, and had a pizza tray dropped next to her and she sits at the chemist and gets a pat and a cuddle off everybody at the coffee shop there.

Tracey: I'm sure you'd find a facility at your way who would love to have her come in to visit the residents.

Peta: I don't mind the idea of doing that once a month ...

Tracey: Sure.

Peta: ... and making that commitment. I'll have a look around that's okay.

Loretta: Yeah, good on you. Thank you for your call. One more SMS we have here. Let's see, this one says, "While it is not including pets within facility services, another alternative is a pet support program called Golden Heart Seniors. I've worked within both serviced and community services. The funding in both areas need to be reviewed." Have you heard of that one, Tracey?

Tracey: Yes, I have. There's a number of organisations around that provide that service. It's a visiting pet service. If people don't have pets of their own or the facility hasn't changed their policy to allow pets to stay there, then there are a number of organisations around who will take pets to the facility. Pet therapy is actually a well-known form of therapy, particularly for people with dementia, and certainly we do see pets being very, very helpful in managing some of the behaviours associated with dementia. There are a number of organisations that will do that.

Loretta: Ian, any last words you'd like to say about pet care in aged care facilities?

Ian: I just think we've covered a lot this morning. I think it's been a brilliant discussion because, as we know, Australia has got one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world. If we've got some states where that ownership within the facility is so low and others where it's high, I think we've got some great ideas this morning on how to do things. I think your listener from Brookfield talking about going in and helping, I think that's wonderful. I think we also will have to start looking at ways that we can help that lady who had the pet who she couldn't take into the facility. I found that very ... She said how much stress it put her under and that's why it comes back to the idea of realising that ... She called the little dog "her boy" so you can see the relationship is so strong. We've got to remember that people, if they can have the animal or contact with the animal some way or the other that's going to improve their quality of life. If they take the animal away from someone they suffer. We've got to just remember that in many ways this is a human rights issue. We've got to make sure that we can do things better.

Life is about making sure that this year is better than last year. Thanks for actually having the discussion today, Loretta and Tracey, and thanks to the RSPCA, as well. I just want to say it's been a great discussion.

Loretta: Yeah, it's really important. Ian Henschke, Chief Advocate for National Seniors Australia, thanks for joining us. I just want one more text message, actually, from someone who has said that in hospitals, of course, we see that they had the Delta Dog Program where they visited Mater Rehab for six years. See, and you were talking about that before, Ian. We do see dogs go into hospitals to help out our war veterans.

You know, in society we're saying how important these animals are, and yet in some cases we're denying people when they're needed most.

Tracey: Correct, and I think that particularly, if the older person has a strong emotional attachment to that pet. Yes, we might have visiting pet programs and all the rest of it. The reality is if you've got a strong emotional attachment to a pet, then a lot of people liken that to their partner. I think that lady from Bribie Island really demonstrated that for her it was very, very distressing. For her to have to relinquish her pet when she moved in, I think for her probably was almost losing a life partner.

Loretta: Certainly is. Ian Henschke, Chief Advocate for National Seniors. Tracey Silvester, Manager of Home Care Provider Company here in Queensland and a registered nurse. Mike Townend from the RSPCA, thank you all for coming in and sharing the stories and helping us today.

Tracey: Been a pleasure. Thank you.

Ian: Thank you very much, indeed.

Loretta: Yes, a very important conversation to have. A thought with everybody, anybody who has had to give up their pet to go into some sort of care. Pets are very important in our lives.

On ABC Radio, Brisbane. You're with Loretta Ryan.

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Tracey Silvester
Tracey Silvester is Executive Manager of Envigor and has more than 25 years’ experience in health and aged care services. Tracey is committed to ensuring that our elders are able to exercise their right to choose how they live their lives regardless of their ability or function. Tracey is a Registered Nurse and has a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Health Management. She is also an Associate Fellow of the Australian College of Health Service Management and a surveyor with the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards.