There’s no doubt loneliness and social isolation are a problem for many people. A 2017 Relationships Australia survey found more than one-third (34%) often felt isolated, and a further 43% felt isolated some of the time.
There’s also little doubt that most of us enjoy the companionship of animals. But little research has been conducted on the benefits of the social interaction that dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and other pets provide.
My dog was a case in point when I had Greek neighbours who didn’t speak much English, and I spoke no Greek.
We didn’t share many words, but regularly interacted through my much-loved pet, Murphy, who helped facilitate contact between us and enjoyed visiting my neighbours when I was at work.
Language barriers were broken and a friendship formed.
The power of pets
More schools, universities, workplaces and care services are recognising the benefits of these simple but special interactions.
Some schools use dogs to combat student stress, and some aged care facilities have pets interact with residents. We know those involved enjoy this interaction, but just how beneficial is it?
Our project aims to find out.
Through the Living Labs Program of the National Centre for Healthy Ageing (NCHA), it will investigate whether bonding with animals can reduce loneliness and social isolation in at-risk groups.
It’s one of 13 NCHA Living Labs projects that have secured combined funding of $4.77 million in the program’s third round of grants. Round three projects aim to empower people to optimise their health, while improving healthcare systems.
Our Monash University School of Primary and Allied Health Care pilot project will explore the benefits of regular interaction with others centred on a shared interest in animals.
Helping those at risk
At its worst, loneliness and social isolation can lead to detrimental effects on physical health, increased incidence of depression, and suicide.
Our study will explore the way pets and the human-animal bond may reduce this sense of loneliness and social isolation in these groups. It will build upon my research over the past six years on the impact of human-animal interactions.
Keeping people connected
My previous studies 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.
We found that regular conversations with others is an important way of staying connected, which in turn can improve physical and mental health and wellbeing.
The new project will focus on the potential benefits of animals as a social conduit for older people, and those from migrant and refugee backgrounds.
Although aged care settings have incorporated animals to relieve residents’ loneliness and isolation, there’s been little objective study of pets’ impact in aged care, and none into the impact of animal activities in refugee and migrant groups.
We now want to understand whether a shared interest in animals, explored in various ways, can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Uniting pets and people
From May 2023, my team and I 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 migrant and refugee communities are included.
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 will inform national approaches to tackling loneliness and isolation for our ageing population. This is more important than ever as we start to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to isolation for many, and compounded the isolation already felt by some.
COVID-19 restrictions showed how isolating loneliness can be, especially for at-risk groups such as residents in locked-down nursing homes, and recent migrants, refugees and international students who could not host or visit friends and family.
The way forward
The ultimate aim of this new program is to use pets to support social connection and healthy ageing.
We look forward to seeing the results of this important research, which we hope will confirm the critical role pets can play in avoiding loneliness.
This could lead to culturally appropriateness, possibly national in scale, at most if not all aged care facilities, and through groups working with migrants and refugees.
We hope this program can provide similar benefits to those shown on the ABC show Older People’s Home for Teenagers, which paired teenagers with older adults. Pets have the potential to be a key facilitator of interactions, and could be particularly helpful on the first meeting when everyone is getting to know each other.
We don’t need research to tell us that a cute pet is the perfect ice-breaker for all age groups.
About the National Centre for Healthy Ageing
The National Centre for Healthy Ageing is a federally funded partnership between Monash University and Peninsula Health. The goal of the NCHA is to deliver national solutions for major challenges in healthy ageing through excellence in translational research.
Working with key partners across Monash University, Peninsula Health and other organisations, the NCHA conducts a wide range of research projects that look to improve the way Australians can age well and thrive in their communities, access care and support when required, and test innovative systems and models of health and social care for some of the most complex problems that impact on healthy ageing.
The key NCHA research programs fall under the Living Labs program. Running since 2020, it incorporates four projects in round one, three projects in round two, and 13 projects in round three.
These projects unite end-users and health consumers with the best researchers and clinical leaders in the field, along with community organisations, peak bodies, and industry partners to co-design and translate our research.
This open innovation approach ensures nationally scalable solutions that can be efficiently integrated into existing systems and practices, maximising impact for the people we’re trying to help.
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