Pets caught up in aged care crisis decisions

Kath McQuarrie at home with Rocky, Hope, Ash and Boadie. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Kath McQuarrie at home with Rocky, Hope, Ash and Boadie. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Having a companion pet is seen as enormously beneficial for those at home alone and particularly for the elderly.

But it always comes with the rarely-discussed concern of what could happen to that pet if something unexpected occurs, such as a medical crisis.

Canberra veterinarian Dr Eloise Bright finds this forced, highly emotional separation a not uncommon occurrence.

"If an older pet owner is taken into hospital unexpectedly and has no family or friends available to take care of their pets, there are very limited options available," she said.

As the president of Pets and Positive Ageing (PAPA), a Canberra volunteer organisation which provides services to elderly pet owners, Dr Bright is attempting to build a support network for when such an emergency happens.

Following on from the federal government's increased budget commitment to aged care this week, clear gaps are still evident in holistic care for the elderly, especially those who choose to remain home alone.

While residential aged care villages are now getting better attuned to the importance of admitting an companion pet, when the elderly person transitions into higher level aged care, in most cases the pet can't go too.

PAPA secretary Di Johnstone said these gut-wrenching decisions put elderly people in a terrible dilemma.

"It's just an awful thing when people have to let a pet go because they have a medical crisis, or they can't manage the pet and themselves," Ms Johnston said.

For 30 years, Kath McQuarrie, of Flynn, has been taking her well-behaved schnauzers into hospitals and aged care homes and fully empathises with the clear choice of an elderly person choosing to stay at home rather than part with a pet.

But equally, she also sees the need for those who make that clear choice to also plan for what could happen quite out of the blue, as boarding and pet-sitting costs are often out of the financial reach for those on fixed incomes.

"Only last week I was contacted by a lady who thought she was only going in [to Canberra Hospital] for the day, but then needed to be admitted," she said.

Kath McQuarrie with her schnauzers. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Kath McQuarrie with her schnauzers. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"Fortunately, she had made arrangements for her dog's emergency care. But she so desperately needed to see her pet so we are making arrangements for that.

"Hopefully we can put her in a wheelchair and bring her to the hospital courtyard and bring her little dog to her."

Ms McQuarrie's therapy dogs have been providing comfort and support to hundreds of Canberrans for decades.

Covid restrictions have kept her miniature schnauzers out of the wards for many months but she keeps getting asked by staff and patients when she can return with the bewhiskered and beautifully groomed Hope and Rocky.

"Every time I go into the hospital, a one-hour visit always turns into three hours or more," she said.

"I'm continually amazed to see the positive effect the dogs have on patients. So many people want to see them and pat them.

"And the dogs come home absolutely exhausted!" she added with a laugh.

It's a constant reminder that for people like her with pets at home that planning ahead is really important.

"I think some people just assume their kids will look after the dog if something happens but that's not always the case," she said.

"It's really important to have that discussion with your family and your friends. Because you get to a certain age and keep thinking everything is going fine and then, all of a sudden, it just isn't."

Elderly people in Canberra with pets at home are encouraged to register with Northside Community Service.

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This story Pets caught up in aged care crisis decisions first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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