After growing up with animals and realizing the impact they can have on mental health, U of S graduate student Megan Flath began to think about the impact that animals can have on the elderly.

“My sister is in her last year of veterinary medicine, so we're a very animal-oriented family. So I got the opportunity to incorporate that into my work of researching the health of older adults,” said Flath.

Flath is in the preliminary stages of her research, gathering data from around the country to examine the impact that animals can have, specifically dogs.

“At the start, we're hoping to use a large national database that has already collected information on a large portion of older adults,” said Flath.

“Were hoping to use that to look to see if pet ownership impacts the relationship with depressive symptoms and cognition. Whether owning a pet will actually improve older adults depressive symptoms.”

In addition to her personal experience with animals, Flath said that watching her grandparents' age also had an impact on the research she is doing.

“I grew up very close with my grandparents and I got to watch first hand how the aging process has impacted them. It’s something that I’m really passionate about,” Flath told CTV.

Months down the line when the research is all done, Flath said they will look into starting a program that pairs animals with lonely seniors.

“We’re hoping to look at the feasibility of developing an at-home animal assisted socialization program in Saskatoon, where we would have animals visit community-dwelling older adults in their home,” said Flath. 

Flath said the idea came partially from her background with animals, and also a survey they conducted, asking older adults about ways they think animals could help.

“I came up with this idea with the help of older adults, which makes it that much more special. When you get to hear directly from the population that you are researching it does help and make sure your research is actually meaningful for them,” Flath told CTV.

Flath said her research has become all the more important during the pandemic, as loneliness becomes more and more of a theme.

“They are at risk for feelings of social isolation and loneliness, especially during the times that we're in right now.”

“With that being said social isolation and loneliness can increase depressive symptoms, can have a negative impact on cognition and things like that.”

Flath said she sees the benefit with animal therapy programs already established, but said many older adults may have difficulties traveling, so an in-home service made the most sense to her.

Flath said that many of the people she spoke with mentioned having a dog when they were younger, and she hopes her program might help bring some people’s fond memories of their childhood pet back or even just give them a new buddy for a few hours.