Remember the time before Covid-19 when we went about our lives, perhaps routinely, but making time to do the things that we enjoyed most. No doubt the isolation break has given us time to reflect on the past and to think about resuming our normal lives. Will we make changes or will we continue where we left off?
For some, isolation has brought a heightened sense of loneliness. Experts tell us that at times of feeling truly isolated, we feed off happy memories as they help to keep us positive.
I was enjoying a coffee with a friend located at the edge of a park and I noticed an elderly couple joyfully playing with a new little puppy. It was puppy magnetism for me and I learnt that their children had purchased the spoodle to help them heal from the loss of their dearly beloved Labrador. I no longer recall the lady's name, but her words have stuck with me.
"We were so devastated over the loss of our beautiful Milo, we truly believed that no dog could ever replace him. Our home had an inexplicable emptiness which we tried to ignore. Time has passed and we have fallen in love all over again with this little guy. We are so grateful as he has brought new life and excitement into our home and life. Every day brings new adventures for him and for us too."
There is no doubt animals provide joy and happiness. Are they the solution to the problem of loneliness?
It would make sense for pets to be able to help with loneliness and provide steady companionship. After all, most co-habit with us and often endear themselves with their human-like behaviours. For example, a dog can show you gratitude, affection, make you laugh and there's the mutual joy of embracing your beloved pet. Whilst pets aren't a replacement for human contact they can play a role in dealing with what has been an increasing problem among adults which is being labelled as "the loneliness epidemic."
Bruce Y Lee, Healthcare reporter for Forbes writes: "Studies have shown that pet ownership may be associated with lower degrees of loneliness.
"For example, published in BMC Geriatrics, an analysis of data from 5210 older adults who were part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, found that those who owned pets were less likely to report being lonely. It also found that people who did not report themselves to be lonely were more likely to own pets.
"A study published in the journal Ageing and Mental Health analysed survey data from a sample of 830 primary care patients who were 60 years and older. The analysis revealed that pet owners were 36 per cent less likely than non-pet owners to report loneliness."
He summarised, "These studies don't necessarily prove that pets alone can alleviate loneliness as they show associations not causation. Someone who is more likely to get an animal companion could also be more likely to maintain other aspects of his or her life that could alleviate loneliness. Moreover, companion animals can prompt you to engage in healthy activities that may decrease your feelings of social isolation such as going outdoors and getting exercise. After all, you have to take a dog for a walk periodically. Companion animals can facilitate interactions with other humans as well."
Experts caution though that companion animals do not replace human interaction, but they can help when someone is struggling to establish meaningful human relationships.
Sure, loneliness may help you compose the next great pop song. But for most people, the risk is a range of possibly serious health consequences.
Vivek Murthy MD MBA, the 19th US Surgeon General, 2014 to 2017, has emphasised that "loneliness is linked to both mental and physical health concerns. People will frequently tell me stories about dealing with different health challenges like addiction, chronic illnesses, obesity, anxiety, and depression. What many times can come out, are their struggles with loneliness. Health struggles certainly can lead to loneliness.
"Like any given human being, a companion animal can't be all things for you. Just like one person can't replace an entire social network, a companion animal will be limited in what it can do for you. Instead, you need a social system in place that can provide different things at different times. That's why fixing the loneliness problem will require fixing the systems that are leading to social isolation."
"Pets alone cannot solve the loneliness problem, but they can help. Of course, having a companion animal comes with responsibility and is not for everyone. You shouldn't just get a dog because you are feeling lonely. You have to be ready to take care of your friend."
Taking all of this information on board and given that these are incredibly difficult times to maintain personal relationships and stay connected, most experts agree it is a good time to bring a new pet into your household.
Not only are there more pets than ever needing good homes, being around pets has many health benefits that overwhelmingly outweigh the negative reasoning.
The RSPCA website reports: "The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has reported that pets and therapy animals can assist in alleviating anxiety, depression, and stress, as well as feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
Health Direct, an Australian government-funded service that provides approved health advice, has listed seven ways that owning or fostering a pet can improve your mental health:
- Pets reduce stress: simply patting a pet has been proven to reduce your blood pressure and also helps you to relax and practice mindfulness.
- Pets provide companionship: by being affectionate, loyal, and consistent, pets reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness.
- Pets fulfil the human touch need: touch is a basic human need which pets can fulfil. Patting a pet has also been proven to lower your heart rate.
- Pets keep you in a routine: pets can give you a sense of motivation by providing regular feeding, exercise, and cleaning.
- Pets provide a sense of purpose: taking care of, and being responsible for, a pet can provide you with a sense of purpose, which can help to reduce depression and anxiety.
- Pets increase your social interaction: while this point is not an option at the moment with COVID-19 restrictions, things will return to normal at some point and your new companion can provide you with opportunities for better social interactions.
- Pets improve your fitness: pets need regular exercise, which encourages you to move more. This, in turn, improves your general health and wellbeing.
No doubt the story I recounted about the elderly couple's joy in rekindling their love for a new puppy after the loss of their beloved Labrador, Milo is one that can be identified with and retold many times over. It could be your story too. If you are feeling a loss or lonely, help is at hand or should I say, at paw?
If this article has raised any concerns for you, contact Community Links Wellbeing www.communitylinks.org.au or phone: 4683 2776. Beyond Blue Support Service 1300 224 636 or Lifeline 24 hour support on 13 11 14.
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