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Pets protect some older adults against suicide

An older person might be less likely to take their own life if there’s a pet in the home.

That’s the new finding that has prompted calls for a closer look at pet accommodation in aged care.  

University of South Australia researchers interviewed 35 older people aged 60-83 years on the impact of pets on their health. They found more than one third who reported being ‘actively suicidal’ or ‘significantly traumatised’ discussed how their pets gave them a reason to live.

The sense of responsibility for an animal gave the individuals purpose, the researchers said, while the constant physical presence of a pet helped mitigate the loneliness and despair they felt.

Lead author Dr Janette Young said pets offer a counter to many older people’s sense of uselessness. “Animals need looking after which creates a sense of purpose for older people, and they also promote social connections with other people.”

As one interviewee put it:

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

Young said men, in particular, identified their pets as playing a key role in their mental health.

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

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

“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 downsise their home,” Young said.

“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.”

But Young warned that pets shouldn’t be seen as a simple solution to a problem.

“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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