Power of animals to benefit the elderly is demonstrated by a small abandoned black lamb.

"This little thing, she's just a darling, she's something else and I can't wait to see her again."

These words are spoken by 75-year-old New Plymouth woman Diann Wyatt. And no, she's not talking about a favourite grandchild – she's describing a pet lamb, a little six-week-old black lamb called Woolimina.

Their's is a touching story.

Wyatt lives at the Radius Care rest home in New Plymouth. She's been there for over three years and in that time has mostly never ventured out to join in activities or mix and mingle with fellow residents.

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That is until Woolimina turned up at the rest home. Wyatt was instantly captivated by the lamb: "I was one of the first to play with her - she's just the bees knees. We never had pets at home and I'd never picked up an animal in my life before."

Her reaction has amazed staff at Radius Care. Activities co-ordinator Helen Baverstock says: "I really cannot explain it.

"Diann is one of two ladies here for whom Woolimina has had a life-changing effect," she says. "Neither of them join in group activities choosing to spend the day in their rooms.

Well, both came looking for her every day and when we took her (Woolimina) visiting other rest homes these ladies were in the van and with us – they didn't even have to be asked.

"In three years she (Diann) had only been out in the van once before."

Baverstock says this story is an example of the benefit pets or animals can have for people living in rest homes. "They are able to give people something we can't; everyone needs someone to love and animals can provide that, they don't feel threatened by them.

"We are very animal friendly here," she says. "Some of the residents have cats, another has a dog and our manager brings her dog in most days. We find animals reduce stress, our residents are happier and more relaxed around them."

The 'Woolimina effect' comes as recent research shows pets are beneficial for the elderly helping bring them joy, making them feel valued and reducing loneliness.

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Photo / Supplied.
Photo / Supplied.

In Australia, Dr Janette Young, a researcher at the University of South Australia, has made a submission to Australia's aged care royal commission calling for more aged care homes to allow residents to keep pets.

She says pets provide companionship, social interaction and a sense of purpose that may otherwise be lacking: "A 2018 Animal Welfare League report found that only 18 per cent (in Australia) of residential aged care facilities allowed residents to live with a pet – this despite all the evidence showing how important the human-animal bond is to people, perhaps even more so as they age."

In New Zealand Massey University School of Health Sciences associate professor Dr Mary Breheny has been reported as saying residents in aged care facilities often feel like they are at the receiving end of help rather than being able to give it back.

"But if they have a pet to look after (even if it is helping with a pet that already lives in the facility) they feel valued," she says.

And a US-based nursing pressure group, Nursebuff, says pets give elderly a shift in focus to positive thoughts and provide them with healthy distractions Woolimina is adored by residents at Radius Care. Baverstock, who with her husband lives on a lifestyle block about 20 minutes out of New Plymouth, adopted the lamb after she was rejected at birth by other sheep on a neighbouring block.

"I told them I had the perfect solution," she says. "I decided to take her to work and have the residents 'adopt' her. Well, I never anticipated just how much she would change our lives; for the first two weeks of her life she came with me every day and was fed and loved - there were no shortage of volunteers.

"We had visitors coming in and asking after her, some even coming especially to see her."
Baverstock says Woolimina loves the attention: "She's a very lucky black lamb and I reckon she thinks she's a person too, she just wants to be around people."

She intends continuing to bring Woolimina to the rest home – "as long as I can lift her up" – but we can keep taking the residents to her as well. Hopefully she'll have babies of her own and we can keep it going."

Wyatt says: "I've always been happy in my own company and I like reading. But when Woolimina is here I just want to be around her all the time."

For more information visit Radius Care.