Pets can make aging easier, but they're expensive. CT volunteers are looking to help
For 14 years, Cindy Tine has shared her home with Stevie, a sweet blue Asian cat that she loves to spoil.
Recently, she gave Stevie a sibling, rescuing a stray kitten from the Newington, Connecticut, cold. But Stevie still gets the bulk of Tine’s attention.
“He means everything,” she said. “I don't know what I would do without him.”
Because of the Senior Paw Project, Tine doesn’t have to worry about that.
Though she uses an electric wheelchair and survives on disability checks, Tine, 63, can keep her beloved Stevie and newcomer, Kitty, because of the free food, cat litter and veterinarian services she receives from Senior Paw.
As seniors face barriers to properly care for themselves, they may also face hurdles in caring for their pets, which are often as beloved as members of their own families. But keeping their pets is important because animals may boost emotional well-being as well as cognitive function and physical health, a recent study of seniors found.
The philanthropic and charitable world focuses on pet adoption services, giving little attention to senior pet care and retention. Senior Paw Project in Connecticut is an exception. Pets for the Elderly Foundation in Cleveland is another.
A program of the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary, Senior Paw Project mainly serves older people who live at or below the poverty line. Services range from pet food delivery to respite care and assistance with veterinary services. The nonprofit, which serves 31 Connecticut communities, was named in honor of 6-year-old Catherine, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
“Her passion was animals. And her real desire in life was to make sure the animals that came under her care knew that they were safe, and that she loved them,” said Jennifer Hubbard, Catherine’s mother and the sanctuary’s executive director. “And so with that premise, we created the sanctuary to create a place that would honor the human animal bond.”
'I just have TV and Stevie'
Tine understands that bond and draws strength from it. She doesn’t have a computer, a smartphone or a human housemate.
“I just have TV and Stevie,” she said. “He's so lovable towards me.”
She has relied on Senior Paw Project for about a year, and the organization has saved her about $20 a month in cat food, a significant amount for someone living on a fixed income. Along with 24 cans of wet food, Tine gets 15 pounds of cat litter per month. She also has received a six-month supply of flea and tick medicine, and a house call from a veterinarian that included shots and saved her more than $200.
The sanctuary partners with a Connecticut-based housing nonprofit to help deliver food and facilitate other services.
Hubbard said she’s had clients who would alternate between feeding themselves and their pets. She found that when the pets had enough to eat, the seniors themselves started eating better and were healthier, since their budgets could accommodate that.
Some seniors have put off their own treatments, even surgeries, because they can’t find someone to care for their pet during their absence, she added.
'The weight of worry is lifted'
Among the more popular Senior Paw Project services is the mobile vet, a benefit not only to older people who don’t have cars or no longer feel comfortable driving, but also to those who may not be able to lift their dogs or have the dexterity to get their cat into a carrier. Once in a home, vets sometimes assist with litter box cleaning or other simple pet tasks.
“The impact that I see is that the weight of worry is lifted off these people's shoulders,” Hubbard said. “They love to share stories about their pets, and they talk as if their pets are their actual children, because for a lot of them, they are.”
A study published in August in Sage Journals, a collective of peer reviewed academic publications, found that seniors who have pets experience a slower cognitive decline, especially those who own them for over five years. The study used data about Medicare recipients who underwent cognitive examinations. Cognitive health was evaluated on a subject’s ability to count backward, subtract and recall vocabulary.
Possible explanations for the improved health were that pets can provide “stress buffering,” as well as promote physical activity. The study, authored by several researchers including from the University of Michigan and University of Florida, also found that long-term pet owners had a lower body mass index and were less likely to have diabetes.
“These findings provide early evidence to suggest that long-term pet ownership could be protective against cognitive disparities, providing a novel and fundamental step to examine how sustained relationships with companion animals may contribute to brain health among older adults,” the study said.
'Can you help me?'
Helping seniors keep their pets also enables them to avoid isolation, which amplifies the health benefits, said Susan Kurowski, executive director of Pets for the Elderly Foundation, which is based in Cleveland and partners with 53 shelters in more than 30 states to provide services for people over age 60.
When a senior knows they have to take care of a dog or a cat, they take better care of themselves so they’re able to look after their pet, she said.
Taking care of animals, however, is expensive. Since 1992, the foundation has subsidized adoption services through many of its partner shelters. In the past few years, it also has put foundation funds toward retention services such as supplying pet food or veterinary care. Participating shelters can only select one of the three options because of the foundation’s financial constraints, and most choose to subsidize adoptions, Kurowski said.
The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago is among the few participating shelters to offer retention services, doing such things as cleaning out litter boxes and trimming pets’ nails.
Second Chance Animal Services in Massachusetts offsets the costs of some veterinary care for qualifying seniors, bringing peace of mind along with a clean bill of health.
The Kalamazoo Humane Society in Michigan is using foundation money to offer mobile vet services at four different senior housing sites this year.
“There are so many seniors who have called me and said, ‘My dog needs cancer surgery, can you help me?’ or ‘I've had this dog forever, and I'm afraid I'm going to lose it because something has set me back and I can't afford the food,’” Kurowski said.
Pet food demand skyrocketed during the pandemic, Hubbard noted. With Amazon and other product delivery companies facing shortages, the Senior Paw Project helped fill the gap. During the worst of the pandemic, Hubbard said, the project delivered over 300,000 pet meals. To date, it has delivered 407,000 meals.
Supplies are donated by corporate supporters such as pet food company Blue Buffalo, through school food drives and by individuals. Senior Paw Project staff is careful in organizing the food so that it’s manageable for people who can’t lift heavy items.
It costs about $700 to support each client, amounting to a $200,000 line-item in the Hubbard Sanctuary’s budget. And grants are hard to come by, Hubbard said, as most are tied to pet adoption services.
Hubbard hopes to expand the project throughout New England in the next three years, and across the country in five to seven years.
Richard Tzul is a writer with the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He reported this story through a grant from The SCAN Foundation.