Jab delay keeps therapy pets away

Karla Carrington resident of Catholic Homes aged care looks forward to her weekly visits with volunteer pet therapy dogs when hard restrictions aren’t in place. Photo: Rosie Malone

While people in Perth aged over 50 are now eligible to get the AstraZeneca COVID-19 jab, aged care workers are concerned lockdown restrictions and the delayed vaccine rollout are leaving vulnerable residents more isolated, alone and with a reduced quality of life.

Strict guidelines designed to keep facilities COVID-free mean fewer outings or visits from family, therapists, entertainers and volunteers. 

Kylie Choong, occupational therapist at Catholic Homes Aged Care in Guildford, said COVID-19 restrictions had definitely impacted residents’ quality of life.

“When COVID hit there were no visitors and no volunteers,” she said.

“We rely heavily on volunteers and external agencies so it definitely made it more difficult and the residents were very upset and less stimulated.

“We used FaceTime and Skype and had a viewing window so residents could see their family, but that’s very different to seeing people in person.”

Ms Choong now organises weekly visits from volunteers and their pets from Animal Companions and screens volunteers on health and recent travel. 

“When residents interact with people you don’t see very much emotion or facial expression, but it’s amazing to see their response to animals,” she said. 

“These animals form part of their identity and they associate love and comfort with them – especially residents with severe cognitive impairments or dementia.  

“Even as staff we often can’t believe what we see.” 

Residents and volunteers at Catholic Homes aged care enjoying one of the weekly pet therapy visit with Kaiser the dog. Photos: Rosie Malone

However, many volunteers are reluctant to return to aged care facilities until they’ve been vaccinated because of concerns about passing on or picking up the virus.

Australian Paralympian, Mary-Anne Wallace is a Women’s Health and Family Services psychologist and president of the Donkey Society of Western Australia.

Pre-COVID-19 she regularly visited homes with her pet donkey, Legacy, but said current restrictions, along with delays in vaccine availability, were stopping her and other volunteers from returning. 

“I need to have both current flu shots and I also have to wait for the COVID vaccine,” she said.

She says animal therapy is particularly important for people in aged care because it gives them a chance to connect with something living which triggers emotions and memories of pets they’ve grown up with.

“Donkeys are quite social animals and are very attuned,” she said. 

“People have to give up everything when they go into aged care, including their pets, so we see special moments with the residents and the donkeys that bring tears to our eyes.

“It’s sad to think they’re now missing out on those opportunities.”

Donkey Society of WA member, Dawn Maton, whose donkeys were meant to be a part of the Anzac Day dawn service at Amaroo aged care last week. Photo: Rosie Malone

Similar concerns were raised on the ABC’s 7.30 program in September, with senior nursing staff expressing fears there would be a longtail of ongoing, non-COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes due to lack of contact, isolation, leisure activities and mobility.

The recent Royal Commission into Aged Care found the current system (based predominantly on pre-COVID-19 data) did not sufficiently support the social and emotional wellbeing of those in care.

Since the shutdown a special report by the commission, along with Australia’s Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, has encouraged providers to come up with innovations to ensure the ongoing health, safety and wellbeing of those in their care.