When we talk of health and being well, much of the talk is often centred on physical health – but mental health matters too.
And the Royal College of General Practitioners recently revealed that loneliness can be just as bad for our health as illnesses such as diabetes.
More than 1.1 million people in the UK are thought to be chronically lonely, with 17% of older people having human contact less than once a week.
The Chief Scientific Officer at the RSPCA, Dr Julia Wrathal, said: “Adopting a pet can be a fantastic way to combat loneliness and animals can make wonderful companions for those who find themselves alone.”
Pairing people with pets could also help ease pressure on animal charities. Older pets are hard to re-home, and older people could adopt older pets – they don’t need to take on a youngster. It’s often the older pets who really just want a loving, caring home with a lap to cuddle up next to, and a stroll around the garden or a short walk around the block.
They make great companions. There’s someone to meet you when you get home. Walking a dog is a great way to meet people when you’re out and about. Dogs mean you need to get out and about for exercise and you can get to meet other dog owners and build up quite a network of people to say hallo to!
Evidence suggests that when we stroke animals - or in the case of dogs, when we just look into their eyes - our bodies release oxytocin, a hormone that brings about bonding between individuals as well as helping us feel more optimistic and lowering blood pressure. They make us less vulnerable to the physical effects of stress.
That said, owning a pet won’t be for everyone.
So what do you do if owning a pet long term isn’t for you?
You could volunteer – it’s a great way to meet people and you can build it into a regular routine. When I volunteered for Cats Protection, an elderly lady used to bring her knitting and radio along to help. She would sit in the pens of the more nervous cats and knit listening to the radio at one end, and the nervous cat would sit at the other and gradually come to say hallo as she knitted away. It was a great way to give cats in the cattery human companionship and keep them in touch with people.
You could also foster – a short term arrangement – or longer! Fosterers are great when kennels and catteries are particularly busy or when there are cats and dogs who aren’t coping with life in a rescue and need more of a homely environment. Contact your local rescue to see how you can help.
The RSPCA says that interacting with animals can be a great way to overcome loneliness in people – and help animals at the same time!
And if you’d like to help the elderly with pet care, you could become a volunteer for the Cinnamon Trust who have volunteers all over the UK. They help with dog walking and all sorts of activities to help the elderly keep their pets, whether the older people live in a care home or in their own homes.