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Pets! To do or not to do?

Jo-Anne Stevens-O’Connor, Social Work Manager, PADCA Pietermaritzburg

The value of Pet Therapy has been much discussed over the years and there are, after a quick google, any number of organisations in SA that offer Pet Therapy: A quick visit once a week with an appropriate pooch. Without a doubt this has enormous value for many, enabling a connection with a pet without any of the responsibility. There is a great deal written about the benefit of contact with animals in terms of healing, joy , lifting of depression, to name but a few. But these visits do not allow for a true relationship between a resident and another living, breathing, life. Eden looks to creating life in a home to be as close to the outside world as possible; one with animals and children, variety, love and spontaneity. Animals certainly provide for that.

In the Sunnyside and Riverside homes of PADCA we currently have four dogs and three cats owned and cared foAveril La Grange and Impi, who moved in together IMG_2215r by residents, as well as two aviaries and one large cage with cockatoos . This is our story.

About eight years ago it was necessary to admit Mrs J to Sunnyside Park Home. Mrs J had lost her only son in a car accident many years before and then her husband a few years previously. Her only family now consisted of two delightful Maltese poodles who had been her support and company through the years of loss.

As with most homes, Sunnyside had a strict NO PET policy. Having no family who could take on her little dogs, Mrs J was forced to have them put down. She sat in our offices and sobbed and sobbed after the event. Mrs J sadly and listlessly moved into Sunnyside and died a few months later – of a broken heart?

That was our turning point. We decided that never again would we ask that of anyone.

Thus long before we had heard of Eden and despite some real reservations, we took the plunge and started allowing people to bring an existing pet to the home.

We drew up a “Pet Contract” with specific expectations of keeping the dog on a leash at all times, annual vaccinations, and the residents ability to afford the pet. (Many of our residents at Sunnyside live on a very limited income.)

Mr W arrived with Dania, his Alsatian whom he happily took for walks around the home’s gardens and with whom he visited his wife who was living with advanced dementia in another wing. She loved seeing Dania and would pet her and hug her and cry into her fur. As with many things in life, this story is not just a happy one. Dania did not do well at Sunnyside and became increasingly withdrawn. Mr W although well, was not fit enough to provide the exercise that a relatively large and young dog needed. Despite the many benefits, including Mr W’s continued pleasure at having his dog with him, this was not a happy fit. Dania became increasingly depressed and residents were distressed at seeing the animal’s unhappiness.

MinnyBut not long after Verna who is passionate about dogs was admitted to a residential wing with her little Maltese and this was and is a happy story. Minny has a happy disposition and quickly made friends with most of the people living in her wing. Minny now trots around on her own, coming back to Verna for food and a sleep and a bit of company but otherwise happily pottering about the home to the delight of her favourite residents. Minny is, could we say, a discreet (?) dog , who bothers no one, seldom barks, is friendly and perfectly content in her environment. Minny has been living with us for nearly eight years and is so much part of the home that she is never mentioned in meetings and most quite forget she is even there.

The rule was that a prospective resident was permitted, subject to negotiation and approval, to bring an existing pet to the home. Ms Parish came to Sunnyside with no immediate family, having been herself dispossessed when she was forced to emigrate from Zimbabwe. A loner, she kept to herself once she moved in to Sunnyside. She did not settle into the home and the staff became concerned as Ms Parish became increasingly depressed and withdrawn. Suicide was feared and the process for admitting her to a psychiatric facility to treat her depression was initiated. In exploring her life history it emerged that she loved “Sausage” dogs and had volunteered at the SPCA for years to help care for the dogs there. Quietly one of the Sisters in the home negotiated with the SPCA for Ms Parish to adopt a little sausage dog – transgressing all the rules I might add. The pet was acquired after admission, there was no contract signed.

The excitement and transformation Ms Parish experienced cannot be adequately described and negated the need for admission to a psychiatric hospital. DSCF0762 (1024x906)Bella came to live with Ms Parish. She had a beautiful red lead, and a bed that took up quite half the space in Ms Parish’s room. Not that the doggy bed was oft used. Bella tended to sleep next to Ms Parish on her bed – also against all the rules. Ms Parish now proudly left her room to take Bella on her regular walks, stopped to talk to people who stopped to talk to Bella, bathed Bella regularly, visited the vet for vaccinations and to treat the odd doggy ailment. Ms Parish became almost happy and got involved in gardening – looking after the flower beds outside her room. When it was eventually necessary for Ms Parish to move to frail care, Bella moved with her and one of the other residents and a special friend of Bella’s came to take her for walks when Ms Parish was too frail to move far from her room.

Another happy story is that of Mrs X. whose family were desperate for her to move to a care facility as her health was deteriorating and she was not caring for herself as she should. However Mrs X, a fiercely independent person, refused to move – in particular because she would not be parted from her sidekick, Whisky, a black and white male cat. Permitting Whisky to join her at Riverside Park made the move possible. After a few days spent secluded in Mrs X’s room, Whisky soon found his way around the home and was frequently to be found in the afternoon sun on the office furniture or commandeering a corner of the manager’s desk for a snooze. One resident objected vehemently to Whisky jumping through her window but she was provided with a spray bottle and Whisky soon learnt not to jump through this particular window. This did not stop said resident from giving Whisky a swift kick if she came across him in the passage and thought no one was watching. So it must be acknowledged that not all our residents like animals and some hate cats. Whisky treated this “Hate Behaviour” with the disdain only a cat can truly exhibit. When Mrs X died, the family took Whisky back to the farm but surprisingly this arrangement did not work. Whisky ran away a few times and his health deteriorated. It was suggested that perhaps he should come back to Riverside where he was happiest. But who would care for him? Another resident with a fondness for cats, Mr Mason took on this responsibility and they became an item, with Whisky frequently being taxied on Mr Mason’s walker.

Who would have anticipated at this point in an elder’s life that the opportunity to engage and reach out, to make a difference to an animal who had no meaningful home, could be offered to a resident of a home. This is about still engaging and living a full and meaningful life. But living a full life is not all about joy. It is also about risk and heartache, love and loss. Whisky’s was a happy story of contented well being in a home with love and lots of relationships. But one day Whisky went missing. We were all devastated and looked long and hard for him, putting up posters and flyers around the community. Whisky never came back and Mr Mason has felt his loss keenly.

So it is not all simple and straightforward. Some pets fit in easily and others not. Some owners care for their pets appropriately and others not so much. Not all residents like having animals about and some carers are scared of the animals with some of the dogs protective of their owners and not happy at the invasion of a carer into their territory. (One of our dogs bit a carer. Not badly but still. You then have the IOD complications for your staff.)

Thus we have good stories and sad stories to tell. We have had joy and discipline issues. Is it worth it? Without a doubt!  The real value of having Pets in the home is not only the significant meaning and well being they provide for their owners but the fact that they contribute to the rich tapestry of a full life!! With pets, residents still engage in life and relationships. They have to take responsibility for another and are required to provide, not just receive care. Even conflict and risk are part of this tapestry of life. Yes, pets are extra work. But they contribute so significantly to a meaningful and rich life within a home that allowing pets is a risk well worth taking.

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