Over the next few decades, around the world ageing populations will double1. Increasingly, people are living longer and wanting to do so in their home—that is, “ageing in place”. How we prepare for burgeoning ageing populations is an urgent issue that requires a holistic approach, and an understanding of place as not just geographic but cultural, social, linguistic and technological.
In Australia, 94% of people over 65 years—that’s 3.5 million—are living at home. Australia also has one of the highest rates of domestic pet ownership, with nearly 5 million households including one or more pets. According to ABC’s Australia Talks national survey, almost one third of the population prefer to ‘hang with pets’ than other people2. Many pet owners are older adults who have aged at home with their companion animals, and there is a need to understand more deeply the role animals can play in informal care and sociality3.
When we first entered Australian homes as part of our three-year multi-city research project on mobile media and games, we envisaged our data collection would focus on people, and the diversity of human interactions with technology in the domestic environment4. Yet it soon became clear that in many homes, humans and their companion animals are entangled in various forms of co-located and digitally mediated intimacy. Within these dynamics, the relationship between humans and non-humans in the rhythms of the household is complex and multifaceted, involving important ways of enacting care and intimacy.
Our relationship with animals, or “more-than-humans” as they are called by some, has been of particular interest to a number of multispecies researchers, including Donna Haraway, Anne Galloway, Thom van Dooren, Hanna Wirman and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa among many others. Their research challenges “human-centric” approaches to ethics, environmental issues, and the very meaning of existence. They provide us with alternative ways of thinking about our being-in-the-world, and suggest that our relationship with animals is one of kinship and emotional connection.
A number of studies have shown that companion animals can positively impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of older people, and in particular scaffold the known benefits of “ageing in place” in the home. Applying a multispecies approach to the experiences of older adults and their pets, and how they are an integral part of our lives, contributes new insights to this research, yet requires some rethinking around the dynamics of care, companionship, ageing and the human-animal relation. Adopting such approaches into our own research has inspired new understandings of the complex relationship between aging, play, sensory and bodily experience, mediated intimacy, kinship and the spatial organisation of the home.
As Gee and Galik note, companion animals enable “older adults to nurture, to enhance their diminishing social networks, and to maintain functioning (physical and cognitive) and quality of life into old age”5. As we age, the opportunity to care decreases, impacting on self-worth; the ongoing capacity to care for a non-human “other” cannot only provide older people with purpose and routine, but also a communication partner and another living being to touch. The haptic, tactile connection we have with companion animals—and the way this is caught up in emotional wellbeing—becomes especially important for older adults who live alone with limited person-to-person contact, or who are restricted in their capacity to engage in social activities outside the home.
Indeed, pets frequently offer the only opportunity for familiar and habitual bodily contact with another living creature, and the crucial sense of comfort and connection that provides6. The physical and mental benefits of pet ownership, and human-animal relations more broadly, have been proven to increase wellbeing through social lubrication, companionship, and physical fitness, specifically cardiovascular disease 7. This is particularly true for older persons who may be more isolated, and the positive effects are shown not only in the context pet ownership, but also where animals are part of home visits or used in therapeutic contexts8.
The role of companion animals in increasing wellbeing among older adults—especially around depression and dementia—has been noted in many scenarios of use such as aged-care facilities9. Animals provide important pathways for social inclusion and a sense of connection10. And yet, the capacity of companion animals to enrich and deepen the dimensions of ageing in place is yet to be fully explored11.
The events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic further underline the vulnerability of older Australians as social isolation and distancing increases. The ongoing challenges faced by regional and remote communities hit by bushfires and drought, including older adults and particularly older men who are vulnerable to increased risk of suicide, again remind us of the importance of finding alternative ways to support social inclusion and emotional wellbeing – a role that animals as more-than-humans can help alleviate.
Indeed, in the wake of the coronavirus and with the recent Royal Commission into Aged Care and Quality in Australia recommendations imminent, we need to think differently about how we support, strengthen and sustain informal care and social inclusion. As our research is showing us, our more-than-human counterparts can offer real and effective strategies that put empathy, touch and companionship at the forefront of our social futures.
Larissa Hjorth is Distinguished Professor for Mobile Media and Games, and Director of the Design & Creative Practice Platform at RMIT University. She is also innovAGEING’s Expert-in-Residence for Design and Gamification
Ingrid Richardson is Professor in Digital Media at RMIT University
Martie-Louise Verreynne is Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at RMIT University
Nancy A. Pachana is Professor of Clinical Geropsychology and Program Lead at the University of Queensland’s Age Friendly University & Healthy Ageing Initiatives
 World Health Organisation (WHO) (2018) Age-friendly Cities and Communities Global network, https://tinyurl.com/yy3o6sjw
 The Australia Talks National Survey was conducted in 2019 and included 54,970 respondents. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-10-06/australia-talks-explained/11570332
 Animal Health Alliance (2013) Pet Ownership in Australia: Summary 2013, NSW, Ultimo; L. Hjorth & I. Richardson (2020) Ambient Play, MIT Press.
 Australian Research Council Discovery Project, Games of Being Mobile (L. Hjorth & I. Richardson, RMIT University).
 N.R. Gee & E. Galik (2019) Future Directions for Research on Human–Animal Interaction in an Aging Population, Anthrozoös, 32:2, p. 284.
 D. Pruess & F. Legal (2017) Living with the animals: animal or robotic companions for the elderly in smart homes. Journal of Medical Ethics, 43, p. 408.
 D.L. Wells (2019) The State of Research on Human–Animal Relations: Implications for Human Health, Anthrozoös, 32: 2, pp. 169-181.
 M.J. Hughes, M-L. Verreyne, P. Harpur, & N.A. Pachana, (2019) Companion Animals and Health in Older Populations: A Systematic Review. Cultural Gerontologist, 17, pp. 1-13.
 Hughes et al. 2019.
 M-J. Enders-Slegers & K. Hediger (2019) Pet Ownership and Human-Animal Interaction in an Aging Population: Rewards and Challenges, Anthrozoös, 32:2, pp. 255-265; Wells 2019.
 Hughes et al. 2019.