For most people studying Medicine, completing a PhD and holding down a teaching job would amount to a maximum workload, but Notre Dame Doctor of Medicine student, Taryn Chalmers also finds time to run a charity bringing joy and laughter to the elderly.
Eighteen months ago, Animals for All Care, which takes homeless dogs into aged care facilities across Sydney, had only one client and three volunteers. Today, the charity is working with 15 aged care facilities across the metropolis and has 23 volunteers on the books.
“We’ve now been invited to expand into Queensland,” says Taryn, who is currently studying for her Doctor of Medicine degree and teaching year 1, 2 and 3 Science students at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) where she is also completing a PhD in Neuroscience.
The charity has the backing and encouragement of the RSPCA which supplies dogs from its shelter and also trains volunteers in dog handling techniques. “The RSPCA is amazing,” she says. “I couldn’t ask to work with a better group of people.”
The impetus for Animals for All Care came from the social justice component of her medical studies at Notre Dame – but rather than joining an existing charity, Taryn decided to launch something that would target the emotional and psychological needs of elderly people. Her PhD focuses on mental health, in particular depression, and is the research foundation for the charity.
“I was reading Being Mortal by the American surgeon Atul Gawande,” she recalls. “In one chapter he describes what happened when a colleague brought parrots, cats and other animals into an aged care facility. That was my inspiration for Animals for All Care.”
While most human beings benefit from contact with a pet, such interactions have a very significant and lasting impact on the health of residents living in aged care facilities.
“Stress is a major issue in aged care facilities, but when you hug a dog there is an exchange of oxytocin which in turn helps to lower the stress hormone cortisol,” says Taryn. “Happy residents live longer, eat better and suffer fewer falls.”
The positive impact of these visits became apparent shortly after Taryn and her colleagues began taking their homeless dogs to Daceyville Residential Aged Care in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
“The response was instantaneous,” she says. “The residents were literally coming from everywhere to meet our dogs. One gentlemen, who had just lost his wife and sat by himself, leaned down and touched noses with our dog Barnie. They stayed like that for 10 minutes without moving. It was so beautiful – I was fighting back tears.”
Until now the charity’s running costs, which include petrol, public liability insurance, staff T-shirts and a website, have come out of Taryn’s own pocket, but as the organisation expands it will also need to secure on-going financial support.
“At the moment I’m just trying to keep the momentum going,” she says. “It would be horrendous if this just fizzled out after all of the work that we’ve put into the charity.
Photo: Mark Chipperfield