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When Jennifer Hubbard established the Catherine Violet Hubbard Foundation and Animal Sanctuary (CVH) in 2013, she wasn’t certain at first what all it could accomplish but absolutely knew its purpose.
“My daughter Catherine wanted every creature she came in contact with to know that she was kind, and they would be safe with her,” Hubbard tells Daily Paws. “As we set out to establish the sanctuary in her memory, we knew our work must honor her commitment to the bond that exists between humans and animals.” The Newtown, Conn., nonprofit commemorates the spirit of Catherine, who was a 6-year-old victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.
As Hubbard and her team considered ways to make Catherine’s dream a reality, CVH partnered with Cornell University Veterinary Medical School for insights and recommendations. One scouting session included the SPCA of Tompkins County, a shelter in Ithaca, N.Y. During the tour, she had a revelation.
“I was struck by a chocolate Lab whose eyes seemed so sad. For weeks, I could not get the beautiful dog out of my mind,” Hubbard says. “We discovered the dog’s previous owner was an older adult who no longer had the means to provide for his pet.”
This was the beginning of CVH’s Senior Paw Project, which provides ongoing support to older adults to eliminate barriers that threaten their pet’s well-being. Hubbard says mobile veterinary services deliver ongoing wellness care, annual vaccines, medication, monthly pet food support, and temporary housing, if needed.
“When these services aren’t available, the result is what I saw in the sad eyes of the Lab surrendered to the shelter: the breaking of the human-animal bond,” Hubbard says.
In the past three years, the Senior Paw Project (SPP) in Newtown and surrounding areas was a local care resource to 300 pets of older adults, fostered more than 20 animals, and served over 325,000 pet food meals.
Why the Human-Animal Bond Matters for Seniors and Their Pets
Meals on Wheels America supports more than 5,000 community-based Meals on Wheels programs across the country dedicated to addressing senior isolation and hunger. According to Laura Belazis, senior director of strategy and impact, and Morgan Hultquist, strategy and impact manager, caring for pets is also a vital part of the organization’s mission, which it achieves through a dedicated pet grant program called Meals on Wheels Loves Pets.
“For many pet-owning older adults living alone, their pet is their closest companion and may be one of their only sources of comfort, providing critical social connection and enhancing their physical and mental health and well-being,” Belazis and Hultquist tell Daily Paws. “In fact, seniors with pets are less likely to exhibit depression, report feelings of loneliness, and experience illness.”
“When we ask our brains to do complex tasks, involving brain speed and accuracy that demand our attention and provide rewards when we succeed, those tasks rewire our brain: building brain reserve, maintaining cognitive function, and protecting against the onset of dementia,” he says.
He says building an emotional bond with a pet is exactly that kind of beneficial activity. “Think of playing fetch with a dog. There’s brain speed and accuracy required to throw a ball, the attention required to make it interesting and different each time, and the reward when the dog brings the ball to you and jumps up for more play,” he adds. “Even if our cats, birds, and reptiles don’t play fetch exactly, when we play with and take care of them, those activities stimulate our brains in important ways and contribute to brain health.”
Just as powerful? The devotion only our favorite furry friends can offer. “Giving and receiving love from a pet—everything from those belly rubs for your dog to when your cat curls up in your lap—stimulates social and emotional centers in the brain that are important for overall brain health,” Mahncke says, whose family has two cats, a guinea pig, and a tortoise.
Courtesy of mealsonwheelsamerica / Instagram “Oxytocin is a neurochemical that is involved in childbirth, mother/baby bonding, and social bonding in general. It turns out that oxytocin is involved in social bonding between people and their pets as well,” says neuroscientist Henry Mahncke. “When your pet puts their paws up in your lap and gazes lovingly into your eyes, their levels of oxytocin go up, and so do yours. This builds the bond between you and them, and promotes brain plasticity in both of your brains, which helps your brain maintain its youthful ability to change and rewire itself.”
Challenges for Older Adults With Pets
Unfortunately, Belazis and Hultquist state that caring for pets also presents daunting hurdles for older adults with mobility, transportation, or financial limitations, especially if they live alone. So with funding from PetSmart Charities, Meals on Wheels Loves Pets conducted a research project from July 2020 through January 2021. Their findings showed many pet lovers face harsh realities, including foregoing personal care to provide for pets, a need for pet food, transportation barriers, and an inability to obtain needed veterinary care.
Additionally, the National Council on Aging indicates that in the U.S., “more than 15 million older adults aged 65+ are economically insecure, with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.” This means 1 in 3 seniors struggle with meeting basic needs, making it even more challenging to care for a pet.
“Another barrier we often see is the cost of routine care for pets,” Hubbard adds. “An average wellness exam is $250, and given that the median annual retirement income for older adults is just $46,360, getting pets veterinary care can create an extreme financial strain for many older adults, causing them to forgo preventative care or self-diagnose their pets.”
Solutions That Make a Difference for Seniors and Pets
Nationwide assistance programs like Meals on Wheels Loves Pets have extensive outreach, with $2.7 million in funding and pet food donations to over 350 local programs to date. Belazis and Hultquist say the addition of the PetSmart Charities partnership, first established in 2019, allows for award grants to local Meals on Wheels programs in 45 states to bolster their pet assistance programming. In 2020 alone, the organization delivered over 675,000 pounds of food to 13,300 seniors and their 21,900 pets.
“Local programs also use grant funds to purchase pet supplies and support connections to veterinary care or other important services their clients may need for their animal companions,” Belazis and Hultquist add. Individuals who need assistance can use this locator guide to find a sponsored pet program.
Hubbard rallied numerous partners to develop SPP, too, wanting to act as a stop gap for older adults considering pet surrender. In Newtown and surrounding areas, the scope of assistance integrates senior and pet care resources, from social services to mobile veterinary programs such as Veterinary Care Everywhere and Heal House Calls.
“We learned that in most cases, the decision to surrender is usually made in a time of emotional or financial crisis and tried to come up with solutions to de-escalate these types of situations for seniors,” Hubbard says. “We also found that some of the biggest barriers seniors faced in keeping and caring for their pets were limited mobility and the cost of ongoing pet wellness care.” One highlight of the SPP approach is group rate pricing for onsite care to both maximize efficiency and reduce costs for older adults.
All too often, many older adults simply don’t know where to turn for assistance, so building awareness of particular programs is essential, too. Around the country, other organizations heed the call to keep seniors and pets together. They include, but aren’t limited to:
The Humane Society of the United States, which offers online resources for finding pet food pantries and other pet-related community services.
Pets for the Elderly, a nonprofit that not only helps seniors adopt pets, but also provides retention assistance, veterinary care, and food shortage support through participating shelters. Here’s a comprehensive state-by-state list.
Red Rover, a national organization that provides extensive animal services and connects older adults with local, state, and national programs.
The Pet Fund, which provides financial assistance and is a conduit to other programs that aid senior pet parents in need.
It’s also imperative to contact senior outreach programs or local shelters to learn more about available resources in their area. Programs such as PALS: Pets Are Loving Support in Atlanta, the Senior Pet Assistance Network in Dallas, PAWSLA in Los Angeles, and The Pixie Care Program in Portland are models of immediate local support.
Additionally, many rescue agencies have Silver Paws foster programs, designed to place older animals in well-deserved homes and reduce shelter overcrowding. These programs frequently cover the financial responsibilities for people over 60, especially for those fostering mature pets.
We as pet lovers can be part of the solution, too. “There are so many individuals and organizations already doing incredible work in the social connection and pet care spaces,” Belazis and Hultquist say. “Reach out to those that are doing this work and connect to learn from them, explore potential partnerships, and more.”