How pets are helping residents of one B.C. seniors’ home get through COVID-19

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Visits to B.C. seniors’ homes have been severely restricted for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but residents at one Vancouver Island facility have been able to take advantage of companionship of another kind.

Live-in pets have brought love and comfort to residents of The Views at St. Joseph’s in Comox for about 15 years, and for the the last several months, that program has taken on added importance.

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“The pets have played an important role in providing a distraction … and also a comfort, to be able to pet, and touch and connect with another being,” CEO Jane Murphy told Global News.

Three cats live at the home — Joey, Marsha and Wednesday — along with four birds and numerous fish.

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A Pacific Assistance Society Dog yellow Labrador retriever named Brunswick also regularly comes to the home with one of the activity staff members.

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Murphy said the residence has been encouraging window, video and phone visits with family members, and hopes to open to limited in-person visits next week.

But in recent months, she said, the pets have been a lifeline.

Read more: Coronavirus: B.C. seniors advocate says she wants to see visitors back in care homes ‘safely’

“For many of our residents, they’re very familiar and had pets growing up and through their lives, so to be able to connect with pets is a very familiar and comforting thing,” she said.

“It’s very evident watching the interaction between the animals and the residents.”

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UBC geriatric psychiatrist Prof. Harpreet Chauhan said there is plenty of evidence that the presence of animals can help seniors with mood, anxiety and loneliness.

She said those effects are even more important during the pandemic, when seniors’ isolation has increased at the same time as they’ve faced increased fears of contracting the virus.

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“They’re often on their own or they get to see one or two people during the week,” she said.

“So having that companion they get to see every day is very comforting and uplifting. It also gives them a sense of someone they are looking after.”

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Chauhan added that animals can also be important companions for people with dementia, who she said tend to have less trouble recognizing pets than people.

Murphy said the presence of animals dovetail with The Views’ “people-first” philosophy.

That same philosophy — and the pets — will carry on when the Providence Living facility builds one of the province’s first dementia villages, expected to open in 2024.

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