Apart from the fact that the ovens occasionally explode, my grandfather’s retirement village is a pretty good one. We were all a little worried when he and his wife announced that they were selling their house and moving there, envisaging Death March-like singalongs of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ led by brisk, lavender-haired women from the local church – a constant smell of urine and boiled cabbage – residents struggling for breath under a hundred-weight of rainbow-coloured crocheted blankets in bizarre re-enactments of medieval torture rituals – women in cardigans clapping their hands delightedly at yet another supper where everything including the water is pureed. And of course, bingo every night.
This was what I was envisaging at least, and possibly getting retirement villages and nursing homes a little confused – because this place was nice. Very nice in fact – the sort of place you would expect to find in Florida filled with tanned old couples in tennis whites who drink highballs in the evenings and used to sell real estate. For a start, everyone has their own apartment and can mix with the other residents as often or as little as they please. It’s set right on Botany Bay, and from your balcony, you can look out and see planes taking off in the distance. There’s a mangrove estuary just beyond the fence, giving the air a thin, damp, salty smell with just the faintest undertone of sewage when the wind changes. The communal areas feature beautiful landscaped gardens and sun-drenched patios where families can gather for barbecues. It also offers all the usual retirement village activities I cannot imagine my grandad ever actually partaking in. However, it’s reassuring to know that if he ever does develop a sudden desire to play boules or take a special line dancing class for seniors, there will be nothing to stop him from doing so.
There are drawbacks to the place, however. It’s quite expensive, for one thing. And, as I mentioned before, the ovens occasionally explode, sending lethal shards of glass everywhere. (This has only ever happened three times to be fair, and the manufacturers assure us that this was a manufacturing defect and the other ovens in the village should be perfectly safe, unless of course they get overly hot. Interestingly, despite these reassurances, my grandparents still prefer to do all their cooking in the microwave and simply use their oven for storing large tupperware containers and ring-binders.)
The main drawback, however, is the management’s strict ‘no pets’ policy. I was appalled when I first heard of this. ‘No pets at all? Not even a canary or goldfish?’ I asked, aghast.
‘No pets at all’, Grandad repeated. ‘They don’t want them disturbing the other residents or attacking people.’ (He had heard the stories about my cat, clearly.)
‘But not even a goldfish?’ I persisted. ‘Surely a fish couldn’t bother anyone.’
‘Perhaps they’re worried about allergies’, he suggested gamely. ‘Or the bowls being knocked over and the residents cutting ourselves on the broken glass.’
This seemed to me unusually cautious for people that had no issue with installing explosive ovens. I couldn’t work it out – the place was either run by a syndicate of weapons manufacturers or a group of overprotective mothers who wouldn’t let their children play on the swingset in case they spoke to another child who at some point in their life had eaten gluten. (Actually, it was run by the Anglican Church, so kind of a combination of the two.)
But this no pets rule really bothered me – not only because it was mean and petty, but because it was bad for the residents from a mental health perspective. I recently became a volunteer telephone counsellor for Lifeline, and if there’s one thing it’s taught me, it’s that having an animal around is good for people. It makes them feel needed, provides companionship and affection, and establishes routine and order in their lives. Indeed, in my limited experience, when suicidal callers are asked what reasons they have for not killing themselves, the number one reason they come up with is a pet cat or dog. And I’m not talking just a handful of people either: according to the Australian Companion Animal Council Report Contribution of the Pet Care Industry to the Australain Economy 6th Edition 2006, an estimated 53% of households have a cat or a dog or both.
To draw again on my own experience: before she died, my grandmother spent some time in a nursing home which boasted a nursing home dog, a beautiful obese Labrador with dark liquid eyes. The residents loved him – so much so that the nurses had to paint ‘NO FOOD’ on his back in white paint to stop them feeding him titbits when he padded by on his daily rounds. (Many of the residents suffered from dementia or Alzheimers so simply asking them to please not feed him wouldn’t have been sufficient.) Now, the whole arrangement may not have been good for the dog from a dietary perspective – particularly given that chocolate was the usual treat of choice – but it certainly improved the quality of life of those residents.
So why take this small comfort away from people, then – particularly the elderly, who are more likely to be widowed, physically unwell, socially isolated and lonely? Chances are they’ve already lost their homes, their jobs and a great portion of their independence – and now they want them to give up their beloved animal companions too?
(This reminds me of another story I read recently about Oscar, a cat in Rhode Island who would visit residents in a nursing home shortly before they died and is credited with accurately predicting around 50 patients’ deaths. His instincts were apparently infallible: he would sniff and observe patients, then curl up to sleep with especial ‘chosen’ ones who would invariably pass away within several hours of his arrival. Indeed, his accuracy led staff at the nursing home to institute a new and unusual protocol: once Oscar was discovered sleeping with a patient, the staff would call family members to notify them of the patient’s impending death. Nobody seemed to consider the obvious – namely, that the cat himself was killing them, rather than mysteriously predicting their demise through some uncanny feline sixth sense.
Now that was a case where the animal probably shouldn’t have been allowed in the nursing home, not least of all because of how unnerving it would be for a resident who felt perfectly healthy to find themselves suddenly visited by this feline angel of death. But Oscar was an exception and I digress…)
In the main part, it is widely acknowledged that animals reduce depression and social isolation. I did some research on the internet, looking in particular at the Black Dog Institute (which, as it turns out, deals primarily with the study of depression rather than just black dogs in general, so was even more useful than I had hitherto anticipated.) Here’s what I learnt:
– Web MD states that ‘just petting your animal can be soothing’. It also adds: ‘The overall health of dog owners is better than those who don’t have dogs, according to a study that evaluated women ages 25 to 40 in China. Half of the 3,031 women owned dogs and half did not. Those who had dogs exercised more often, slept better, reported better fitness levels and fewer sick days, and saw their doctors less often… In one study… pet owners had lower blood pressure and blood fat levels than non-owners.’
– Pets are a terrific conduit for social interaction: ‘You want to meet people? Once having left the house with the dog, it is impossible to avoid attention. There are always some people who will stop to pet a dog, ask questions and engage in conversation… There are some people who manage to walk their cats and I have known some of them. Horses are natural outdoor animals that are also connected with socialization as they have to be boarded and that usually involves having to interact with other people.’ Well, the sky’s the limit then…
– According to the Psychiatric Bulletin, parrots are particularly efficacious in the treatment of depression. To quote: ‘I have kept pet parrots for 20 years and can recommend them for the house bound, the lonely and patients with depression, especially middle-aged women suffering from the ’empty nest syndrome.’ No, no pun is intended – this woman simply loves parrots. But lest you get too enthusiastic, I draw your attention to this note of caution: ‘parrots are probably not suitable for health centres, not because of confidentiality problems but because they can be noisy and it is unfair to keep them constantly caged. When parrots breach confidentiality it is with phrases they have heard repeatedly and with emotion. ‘ Stupid parrots, just never know when to keep their beaks shut….
– Cats are recommended with some reservation: ‘Having an animal that looks forward to you coming home, as a dog will, can be very rewarding. Cats, unless they are particularly moody, will also be happy to see you when you come home (unless they are asleep).’
– Anecdotal evidence has its place too, hence this largely anecdotal piece about how a dog saved one couple’s marriage: ‘When our children were small we went out, as a family, to purchase a puppy. It was decided that we wanted a French Poodle. Once we saw “Buttons,” we all fell in love. Well, Buttons became a full fledged member of the family who set her own rules and regulations for proper behavior around the house. For example, if my wife and I had an argument, Buttons lets us know, in no uncertain terms, that conflict was unacceptable. Small as she was, she would directly intercede and bark until everyone realized that it was time for a truce.’ (To suggest that this couple might be slightly unbalanced would detract from the force of their powerful testimony.)
– And then there is this helpful caution, should you be inclined to place too much import on your relationship with your cat or dog: ‘ It is, however, important that you remember that while you can talk to your pets, they cannot replace human companionship. They don’t talk back. You can tell your dog or cat about your day or tell it how you are feeling but it won’t be able to offer any words of advice. It won’t be able to tell you that everything will be better, but it might lick your face. Sometimes, that is all that you need.’
The site also adds this helpful footnote: ‘Of course, you need not be depressed or anxious in order to have a pet.’ Well, thank god for that, I hear you exclaiming. And here I was, thinking I’d have to donate the cat to the local asylum…
So there you have it: with your beloved dog or kitty or parrot at your side, you too can progress happily into your twilight years. Unless of course you’re unlucky enough to move into an Anglican retirement home. In which case, you might want to give up baking too.