USask Department of Psychology PhD candidate Meghan Flath with her pets Hilo (left) and Kona (right). (Photo: Submitted)

Animal-assisted socialization: USask researcher exploring new program to support Canada’s aging population

As a child, Meghan Flath grew up with pets, experiencing first-hand the mental health benefits that connection brings. Now she wants to show how it can improve the lives of lonely older adults as the country’s aging population continues to grow.

“Many older adults who are still living at home feel lonely or socially isolated, especially during this time, obviously,” said Flath, a PhD student who has earned a Bachelor of Science in Physiology and Pharmacology and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in psychology at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

“Whether we are facing a pandemic or not, this population does tend to lose a lot of the connections in their lives. Whether it be the death of a spouse, or losing friends, they might not be able to get out as much as before, so feeling lonely is a common concern. And that is where at-home delivery of animal-assisted socialization can help.”

Flath’s project is funded by a Canada Graduate Scholarship Doctoral Award from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and is supervised by USask psychology professor Dr. Megan O’Connell (PhD), a national leader in research to support older adults.

A comprehensive 2017 research report projected that the number of Canadian seniors (aged 65 and over) is expected to double to 25 per cent of the population in the next 20 years, creating new challenges and increased demands on an already overburdened health-care system. Flath is one of a number of young researchers in O’Connell’s lab working on innovative new programs to support the needs of this growing segment of the population. For Flath, her research is also deeply personal.

“I have always been incredibly close with my grandparents and I have seen first-hand how the transition into that later-in-life aging process brings about many unique challenges,” she said. “So getting to be in Dr. O’Connell’s lab was really rewarding for me because I have the chance to see all the different ways that she is trying to help with this transition and improve the quality of life for this growing part of the population.”

Building on the success of previous popular pet-assisted therapy programs, Flath’s project is designed to bring the benefits right to the door of often-isolated older adults, with in-home visits from animals and their handlers.

“Many older adults can’t get to community centres, and many of them are introverted, so sometimes large group programs are intimidating for them,” said Flath. “In stakeholder meetings with older adults and caregivers, many have expressed that they would enjoy having access to pets, but that having the animal visit them in their own home would provide them with socialization in a way that would better suit their needs. So for me, knowing how animals have always been an important part of my life, this approach to at-home delivery of animal-assisted socialization seemed perfect.”

While the ongoing global pandemic has delayed community visits in this research project, Flath is currently focusing on analyzing data on the association between pet ownership and social isolation and loneliness, documented in the long-term Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, the country’s most comprehensive ongoing study of the health and well-being of Canada’s aging population.

Once safe to do so, Flath will put her research to the test by bringing animal-assisted socialization directly to older adults in the community.

“I am in the preliminary stages of my research, but once the pandemic is over, we will move into going into individuals’ homes to develop the program and showcase the benefits of at-home delivery of animal-assisted socialization,” said Flath. “Research has shown that pet-assisted interventions offer great mechanisms for healing and helping people and we want to show just how well this kind of program can improve quality of life for this growing segment of our population.”

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