Here is much interest in ways that people’s relationships with companion animals may support health and well-being later in life. The literature in this area has generally focused on exploring the “direct” effect, whereby there is a causal link between having a pet and any range of outcomes, from reduced blood pressure to improved mental health. My own interest, however, is informed by my public and population health approach. This approach views health and well-being as being shaped by policy and practices that lie outside the traditional healthcare system.
People’s experiences of companion animals are relational. The ways that older adults negotiate their circumstances in order to sustain relationships with pets are as relevant to understanding the health-promoting potential of pets as are any direct effects. Thus, I focus on ways that people’s circumstances, as they age-in-place, shape how human-animal relationships unfold on a daily basis. Because some older adults face more barriers than others in maintaining their relationships with pets later in life, my approach also explores broad issues around underlying ethics and social justice. My contributions have also been informed by the work of my mentor, Dr. Melanie Rock, who has led theoretical advancement in this area.
Given this focus, my research has natural links to public policy, and specifically to the popular Age-Friendly Communities policy framework. This framework, developed by the WHO in 2007, has been adopted and tailored by countless communities around the globe, including many in Canada. Yet even though over pet ownership among older adults is prevalent world-wide, few age-friendly strategies consider ways of supporting or leveraging these relationships, nor involve animal welfare or veterinary practitioners as valued community stakeholders in creating age-friendly communities. My research program underscores the importance of redressing this situation.
My approach also embraces the One Health view that human, non-human animal, and environmental health are intertwined. In linking with the Age-Friendly policy framework, I have contributed a One Health perspective to a range age-friendly priority areas, including outdoor settings, availability of appropriate housing, access to community services, social participation, and social inclusion more broadly. Importantly, my work has begun to generate evidence to unveil the extent to which human-animal relationships are shaped by the social and physical environments we create through public policies and organizational practices. These socio-ecological contexts influence both collective and individual health and well-being for older people and their companion animals.
See Google Scholar for a list of my publications in this area.