It’s a sad fact that suicide rates among people over 60 are the highest of any age group in Australia, but a new study published today from the University of South Australia has found an unexpected saviour – pets.
The mere presence of a dog, cat, or even birds can be enough to stop some older people from taking their own life, according to lead author Dr Janette Young, a UniSA Health Sciences lecturer.
More than one third (12) who reported being “actively suicidal” or “significantly traumatised” discussed how their pets gave them a reason to live. Feeling “known” by their pet was crucial. Taking responsibility for an animal (feeding, grooming and exercising it) gave them purpose, and the constant physical presence of a pet helped mitigate the loneliness and despair they felt.
“Pets are just wonderful companions,” one woman testified. “Just being there in your dark times, loving you, knowing you and appreciating you is a powerful thing, offering a sense of protection.”
Men, in particular, identified their pets as playing a key role in their mental health, Dr Young says.
“This pattern seems significant given the higher suicide rate among men, which increases with age in western countries.”
Older people are more likely to experience complex health needs, social isolation and loneliness, and fear of burdening their families. For these reasons alone, pets can play a protective role, the researchers say.
“Pets offer a counter to many older people’s sense of uselessness,” Dr Young says. “Animals need looking after which creates a sense of purpose for older people, and they also promote social connections with other people.”
The dearth of pet accommodation in aged care should be re-examined in light of these findings, the researchers say.
“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 downside their home.
“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.”
However, Dr Young says not all pet owners will fit this profile. “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.”
Notes for editors
“A Qualitative Analysis of Pets as Suicide Prevention for Older People” is published in Anthrozoos. The authors are Dr Janette Young, Dr Carmel Nottle, Dr Amy Baker, Holly Bowen-Salter and Kristen Stevens, all from the University of South Australia, and Dr Lisel O’Dwyer from the University of Adelaide.