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Pets wonderful means of helping elders exercise, engage and reduce their social isolation

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Dogs are man’s best friends, and the benefits especially stack up for older Australians.

As communities cautiously reengage after years of pandemic isolation, Council on the Ageing Victoria (COTA VIC) is encouraging older Australians to discover the health boosting power of life enjoyed with a four legged friend by their side.  

Tina Hogarth-Clarke, CEO of COTA Victoria, tells Aged Care News that staying COVID-safe over the pandemic has meant that many older persons have isolated themselves inside, limiting physical and social activity.

the data has shown that one in five Australians rarely or never have someone to talk to, with Swinburne researchers finding that around 27 per cent of people feel lonely at least three days a week, every week.

CEO of COTA Victoria, Tina Hogarth-Clarke

“We have been really struggling to get older people to build up their confidence to get back out in the community,” she says.

“There are some people who have jumped at the chance, but there are some quite significantly disadvantaged, vulnerable people that are still uncomfortable with going back out into community, to exercise, engage and reduce their social isolation.”

Tina Hogarth-Clarke, CEO of COTA VIC, says that owning a pet is a great way to combat loneliness, as well as increasing fitness levels in older Australians.

Pets, especially dogs, Hogarth-Clarke explains, provide great encouragement to engage with healthy habits and are a great antidote to loneliness.

“This is a real focus on loneliness … the data has shown that one in five Australians rarely or never have someone to talk to, with Swinburne researchers finding that around 27 per cent of people feel lonely at least three days a week, every week.

“Not that a pet will replace human contact, but it certainly does go a long way towards making people feel as though they have a purpose and reducing that loneliness.

“And the need to walk a dog gets people out in the community, as well as getting some exercise and some fresh air.”

the data is there, showing that you do have an incentive, if you’ve got a pet, to stay fit whilst boosting community participation as well.

Tina Hogarth-Clarke

According to the research, the physical benefits are just as positive as the mental benefits of dog-ownership.

A 2018 study found that dog owners are more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than people without a furry companion, with the result being a reduced likelihood of developing a range of chronic health conditions, including: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and dementia.  

Walking can also reduce the risk of falls and fall-related injury for older people, which can affect their ability to live independently.

[Another study] from the University of Missouri, found that dog owners did, on average, 300 minutes of physical activity per week, while non dog owners only walked 168 minutes per week — so just under 50 per cent difference.

“So the data is there, showing that you do have an incentive, if you’ve got a pet, to stay fit whilst boosting community participation as well.”

… regular movement, regular participation, regular engagement with other people — That is how you build your confidence, build your strength, but also prevent social isolation and loneliness.

Tina Hogarth-Clarke

COTA VIC has Facebook page, ‘A Pat, Chat and Walk a Day’, which encourages older Australians to celebrate and share the positive experiences their pets bring to their daily lives.

“People are posting themselves walking their dogs, which is a great reminder of the benefits of pet ownership and how we’ve got to encourage all of our friends and family to get back into it and to keep healthy and fit so they can age well.”

Of course, many elders reach a stage where pet ownership is not on the cards.

“We’re certainly not advocating that every single person who feels lonely should get to get a dog so they can go out walking,” Hogarth-Clarke notes.

“You’ve got to look at your home, and you’ve got to look at your physical ability, you’ve got to look at the type of dog that you would purchase.”

For elders living in residential aged care, Hogarth-Clarke supports increased provision of pet therapy sessions, where benefits are really centred around increased emotional and cognitive wellbeing.

“There’s strong evidence regarding therapy dogs for mental health … and it’s because of the endorphins get released when you’re petting.

“A lot of facilities will have a pet within the facility, and that might be a cat, a bird, or a hamster … I know some that bring in baby chickens on a regular basis and the residents interact with them.

“It might only be anecdotal evidence, but staff do report that residents are happier for it; they use less pain medication, for example.”

Furry-free fitness options also endorsed

For elders who don’t wish to own a pet but would still like some fresh, new incentives to get out and active, COTA VIC have launched their Random Acts of Exercise initiative, with video examples of the suggested tasks available.  

Most of the suggested exercise tasks can be done from the comfort of one’s own home, or incorporated into a daily walk.

“It’s gentle interval training,” Hogarth-Clarke explains.

“One of them is about pace: you walk quickly and then walk slowly, then stop and stretch, then repeat.”

Hogarth says that these small additions to an elder’s daily routine are about breaking down the intimidating nature of “exercise”, instead creating a healthy and consistent relationship with movement.

“Because that’s the key, regular movement, regular participation, regular engagement with other people. That is how you build your confidence, build your strength, but also prevent social isolation and loneliness.

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