PURR-FECT: The smile tells the story of success for a new program using cats as therapy, which the Cat Protection Society of Victoria has developed with Deloraine Aged Care.
PURR-FECT: The smile tells the story of success for a new program using cats as therapy, which the Cat Protection Society of Victoria has developed with Deloraine Aged Care.

Cat therapy has aged care residents 'feline fine'

IF YOU'RE an animal-lover, it doesn't matter how old you are, or even if you have dementia, you never forget that love and the joy it brings.

Mellie Hudson, lifestyle co-ordinator at Deloraine Aged Care in Greensborough, Melbourne, has firm proof of that statement, having just introduced cat visits at the home in addition to dogs as pet therapy.

"We knew pet therapy brings residents out of their shell because we've been having visits from dogs for about 10 years," Mellie said.

"But there's nothing we know of in Australia where it's been done with cats."

The cats, from the Cat Protection Society of Victoria, were the suggestion of a family member of one of the residents, who had brought the new cat she had adopted in to show off.

According to Brisbane's Mater Hospital, research shows that people with pets live longer, with pets having a "profound" effect on both physical and emotional health.

Improvements can include a reduction in the fight or flight response, and therefore stress, and increased serotonin, which helps regulate mood, appetite and digestion, sleep and memory, as well as improvements in blood pressure and decreased pain and anxiety.

And, of course, animals are non-judgemental, just happy to give you their company.

"We thought it would work, but it's been more successful than we ever thought - it's been really positive," Mellie said.

So positive, in fact, that the visits now occur every 4-6 weeks, with about 15 residents taking part in each session, during which the visiting cat either sits on their lap or, for those who are too frail, the cat is held for them to stroke.

"It brings back those feelings and memories; it calms them, and the cats seem to have a sense that they are doing something special too," Mellie said.

She said the cats reacted differently to different residents, instinctively snuggling up with those who were perhaps not well, or frail, and being more playful with others.

And as an added bonus, because the cats are each looking for a permanent home, photos of them with the residents are posted on the Cat Protection Society Facebook page, leading to adoptions, so the residents know they are helping the community.

"We're really proud of what we're doing, and so are the Cat Protection Society," Mellie said.

Jacqui Foley, a Cat Protection Society of Victoria team leader, chooses the cats for the program which she heads and which has grown in a very short period to cover three nursing homes.

"It's really beautiful to see the way people's faces light up - it gives them an interest in their day," she said.

"They talk about their own cats that they've had in the past and about their lives, and I talk about mine and it's already become like a friendship."

The program has a special place in Jacqui's heart, with her father having recently passed away in a nursing home.

"Going into a home can be very confronting - you don't have the same lifestyle or community that you used to have," she said.

"Animals relax you and calm you when you're stressed or unhappy.

"Just patting them and feeling their fur lets you take a step outside of what's going on in your life; they're good for the soul."

Jacqui believes the program has real potential for others to follow and spread the happiness which cats can bring.

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