Pets for the Elderly aims to bridge ‘isolation gap’ during the pandemic

Jen Reeder
·3 min read

Every day, Pat Smith’s rescue dog, Brady, puts on a show for her.

Before she gives him a meal, she says, “Circles,” and he dances around and around. Then the mixed-breed pup sits politely until she puts down his bowl and says, “OK.”

Pat Smith holds her dog, Brady. (Courtesy of Pets for the Elderly)
Pat Smith holds her dog, Brady. (Courtesy of Pets for the Elderly)

During the daytime, Brady zooms in and out of his doggie doors, frequently checking on Smith or asking to play ball or head out on a walk. At night, he cuddles in her lap while she watches TV. When she announces, “Time to go to bed,” he immediately runs outside to do his business and then hurries into his crate to wait for a bedtime cookie.

“He’s a wonderful companion,” Smith, 71, told TODAY. “He’s very active, but he really is my best buddy. No matter where I go in my house, he follows me. He’s a real comfort to me.”

Smith, a resident of Grand Ledge, Michigan, adopted Brady two years ago from a local Humane Society. Because she is over 60 years old, the shelter told her she qualified for a $100 adoption discount from Pets for the Elderly, a national nonprofit that offers grants to participating shelters.

The retired middle school math teacher was delighted by the news and said it’s a helpful program. She credits her energetic dog with getting her “moving around a lot more,” and hopes other seniors will consider adopting dogs.

“I just think everybody should have a pet,” she said.

A woman in a car snuggles a dog. (Courtesy of Pets for the Elderly)
A woman in a car snuggles a dog. (Courtesy of Pets for the Elderly)

Since its inception in 1992, Pets for the Elderly has paid a portion of pet adoption fees for nearly 100,000 “seniors” aged 60 and up from more than 50 shelters in 34 states. Now the group is alerting shelters of a new option to help cover the costs of routine veterinary care, surgeries, pet food, grooming and in-home visits, in which shelter employees check in on senior citizens caring for adopted pets.

Susan Kurowski, 69, executive director of Pets for the Elderly, said she hopes more shelters will apply for grants to help keep pets in the homes of the seniors who love them. The goal is to have at least one participating shelter in all 50 states by the time the expanded program officially launches on Jan. 1, 2021.

Related: Muttville Senior Dog Rescue's innovative program is a win-win solution for people and animals who need companionship, exercise and affection.

She said Pets for the Elderly was founded by the late Avrum Katz to help seniors feel healthier and more connected through pets and to find shelter dogs and cats forever homes. Studies have shown numerous health benefits of spending time with pets, from lowered blood pressure to reduced anxiety and depression.

“Now, especially with COVID, bridging this whole isolation gap with companionship is going to show — when we look back — as being key to so many people’s mental wellness,” she told TODAY. “And you don’t have to live alone to feel isolated.”

A cat nuz (Courtesy of Pets for the Elderly)
A cat nuz (Courtesy of Pets for the Elderly)

While these benefits apply to the general population, there’s an added advantage that pets provide to older people, according to Kurowski.

“Seniors take better care of themselves because somebody’s counting on them,” she said. “They maintain a routine. They take their vitamins and their prescriptions on time because there’s someone relying on them, and that is so important.”

She loves hearing happy adoption stories facilitated by Pets for the Elderly. In one instance, a lonely widower came to volunteer at a shelter but ended up adopting a fluffy little dog.

“When he walked into the common area after the adoption with this dog, everybody’s oohing and aahing and he just brightened up and said, ‘I’m going to be a chick magnet,’” she said with a laugh. “I just hope we can keep on and help more and more of these animals and seniors.”