Published in The Times 10 November 2023 

By Jane Slade

Pets are the perfect antidote to loneliness in older age, which helps to explain why so many retirement community operators are extending a paw to four-legged residents.

Some, such as Audley Villages, will install cat flaps. Others, such as Elysian Residences, will arrange visits to a vet or a grooming salon. Many, such as Brio, offer dog-walking and pet-sitting services. Rangeford Villages has just opened a “bark park” at Siddington Park, its retirement community in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. The dog-friendly park is a 750 sq ft area covered in tree-bark chippings. It features a dog agility area, a bench for owners and café-style lights so it can be used on winter evenings.

The Siddington homeowner Roy Chambers often visits with his schnauzer Lexi. “It’s a good area,” he says. “Much better covered in tree bark than grass that can become muddy and messy. It’s also good for dogs to use up some energy without having to go on a long walk on a miserable day.”

John Lavin from Cognatum, which manages more than 60 retirement estates across central and southern England, has seen a big increase in the number of pet owners since the pandemic. “Pre-lockdown about 10 per cent of our 2,200-plus residents owned a dog — the figure has now doubled,” he says. “Dogs help owners to settle into a regular routine, provide excellent companionship, reduce stress and provide a good point of contact for friendship,” he adds.

Retired businesswoman Gill Smith, 61, found herself in a community of seven pet owners when she moved to Beechcroft Development’s Castle Gardens in Watlington, Oxfordshire, with her six-year-old cockapoo Coco seven months ago. “There are lots of lovely dog owners and a dog-friendly café,” she says. “There’s also a dog-walking group that meets every Wednesday and a ‘poo patrol’ that meets on a Saturday morning to clean up the playing fields before children arrive.”

Finding a home with an enclosed garden for Coco was a priority for Smith, who is single and didn’t know anyone when she moved in. “At Castle Gardens I found a two-bedroom home with a private enclosed garden, something no other retirement community I visited offered.”

She admits that her life would be different without Coco. “I live alone so would probably have felt quite isolated and wouldn’t have gone out much.” As it is, Smith has made new friends, and has trained Coco to be a therapy dog so she can comfort people in care homes.

Some pets have a vital role in assisting their owners. Retired medical professor Peter Sonksen, 87, a former diabetes nurse, could not have moved to a scheme that didn’t allow dogs, which is why they bought a ground-floor flat in Audley Stanbridge Earls, a retirement village near Romsey in Hampshire.

The couple swapped their large house near Winchester, with its two-and-a-half-acre garden, for the two-bedroom home, which has two terraces and 32 acres of grounds. “It’s idea for walking Baxter,” Susie says. “We have lots of walks right on our doorstep.

“Baxter is trained to pick things up off the floor for Peter, put his wheelchair footplate up with his nose and down with his paw, and open doors.” Baxter can accompany the couple to the bar and bistro.

Retirement operators are aware of the importance of appealing to pets, but it is a balancing act. “We do understand that not every homeowner will feel comfortable around pets, which is why it’s important that we continue to build pet-friendly properties but also have designated spaces within our villages where everyone’s needs are taken into account,” says Nick Sanderson, the chief executive of Audley Villages.

A change in the law is set to transform the lives of pet-owning elderly people who are struggling to find pet-friendly retirement homes to rent. Under the Renters (Reform) Bill, landlords will not be able to “unreasonably” refuse a tenant’s request to have a pet in the property.

Many retirement operators offer rentals, and while most, such as the retirement rental specialist My Future Living, allow pets, there can be restrictions. Beverly Feather, 75, would not have moved to Belle Vue, a community that offers retirement apartments to rent as well as buy, if she and her husband, Roger, 83, hadn’t been able to bring their cat Syd and chihuahua Teddy. “Belle Vue doesn’t just allow pets, they’re very enthusiastic about them,” Feather says. “Teddy charges into the office because Mel, the assistant general manager, also has a chihuahua. The residents meet for tea on Wednesday afternoons, and Teddy often comes and sits on their laps.”

Belle Vue, which is operated by Pegasus, is ten minutes’ walk from Hampstead Heath in north London. Pegasus allows dogs in communal areas provided that they are on a lead, but cats must remain in their owners’ apartments.

When 70-year-old Malcolm Burch moved into his one-bedroom apartment at Churchill’s Austen Lodge in Basingstoke, he was delighted that Darcy, his seven-year-old dachshund, could come too. After all, a development named after Jane Austen is the perfect home for a pet named after the romantic hero of Pride and Prejudice. “There’s no way I’d have moved here if they didn’t allow me to bring Darcy,” Burch says.

Recently widowed, he downsized from his four-bedroom house in Maidenhead to move closer to his daughter and grandchildren. “I enjoy seeing more of them, and they enjoy spending more time with me and Darcy,” he adds.

A bonus for the retired IT specialist is that Darcy has kept him trim. “Walking him twice a day has resulted in me losing four inches round my waist.”

Having a dog that doesn’t bark can pay dividends, as the retired nurse Mary Strange, 79, discovered after moving into Applegate house a McCarthy Stone development in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, with her beloved rescue dog, Pepsi. “Pepsi was in a terrible state when I got him, and needed love and to be looked after,” Strange explains. “He likes to make friends with everyone. He doesn’t bark — that’s very important when living in a retirement community.”

She discovered how wonderful her neighbours were after Pepsi was attacked by another dog. “They all rallied round and said, ‘He’s not just your dog, he’s ours too,’ which meant a lot to me.”

Pepsi was Strange’s motivation to exercise after she had operations to replace a hip and knee. “He helps me with my physical and mental health. He thinks he is still a puppy and sleeps on my bed, and is always by my side.”

At Debden Grange retirement community, dog owners and their pets are welcome in the communal restaurant. So Colin Stevenson, 80, and Rupert, his rottweiler-German shepherd cross, dine together in a designated area for dog owners.

Stevenson and his wife, Sheila, moved into a two-bedroom ground-floor apartment at the retirement village in Newport, Essex, 18 months ago. Rupert, a rescue dog, has proved invaluable to other residents too, possessing a sixth sense for helping those with dementia.

“Rupert is very good-natured,” Stevenson explains. “He seems to be able to sense people with disability. He puts his nose on their lap and likes being stroked.” Rupert is also a popular guest at coffee mornings and is welcome in communal areas.

The former University Challenge and Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman, 73, has written and talked about how his rescue spaniel-dalmatian Derek has helped him greatly to cope with bouts of depression and loneliness after his Parkinson’s diagnosis. “You’re never alone with a pet — most of my conversation each day is with Derek,” he said. Such is Paxman’s devotion to Derek that he attended a dog first-aid course in case he needs to help his four-legged friend.

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Cognatum, a not-for-profit company, has 60 retirement estates in 21 counties across central and southern England, a total of 928 retirement homes. All are in prime locations within vibrant market towns or villages, within walking distance of shops and restaurants. Each estate benefits from thoughtful architecture, landscaped grounds, and a dedicated estate manager.