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Throughout the pandemic, many families embraced pet ownership to help deal with the psychological effects of shelter-in-place and work-from-home guidelines. Preliminary studies indicate that our animal friends definitely helped us cope with these and other lifestyle changes. But numerous senior citizens continue to face challenges due to pandemic isolation, including loneliness.
So in Washington, D.C., two organizations rolled out a virtual pilot program in early March to bring furry and feathered joy to area residents. The Humane Rescue Alliance (HRS), an animal welfare organization, and the DC Department of Aging and Community Living (DACL) developed Senior Pet Connect.
Dani Rizzo, digital director at HRS, told Daily Paws the intent of the partnership between the two agencies is to build a holistic safety net for the District's seniors and animals. "Our main goal is to combat senior isolation and to preserve families by ensuring we are meeting the evolving needs of DC's senior pet guardians and animal lovers," she said.
Rizzo said that compared to non-pet owners, seniors with pets are 36 percent less likely to report loneliness. "And we know improved socialization has an impact on overall mental and physical health and wellbeing." Laura Newland, DACL's director, added that "Studies have shown that spending just 15 minutes with a pet can have positive emotional benefits and reduce feelings of loneliness."
We know what a kick we get (most of the time!) from animals vid-bombing our meetings (after all, it's a regular occurrence with our staff members!), but can you imagine the delight to be onscreen simply for the purpose of meeting new critters? Sounds like heaven! For about 30 minutes, the inaugural Senior Pet Connect event featured staff and volunteers from both agencies who shared various cats and dogs with senior participants—along with special appearances by Casey (a macaw parrot) and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (a chicken).
Newland said another essential component of the program is one-on-one virtual conversations between seniors and pet foster parents that take place once or twice a week or once a month, depending on the individual preferences of each senior and availability of the volunteer. "When it is safe to do so, we'll also provide an opportunity for participants to meet in-person, in a safe, socially-distant manner."
Rizzo noted that shortly after the initial rollout of Senior Pet Connect, HRS already had participants express interest in adopting and fostering animals. "Fostering is the future of our work and we are looking at how to continue to grow our foster program so animals don't have to be in institutional housing," she said. "And we know there are seniors in our community who can and want to help and have the capacity to foster or adopt. It's up to us to engage new foster caregivers, including seniors, and bring them along in this important work."
Programs such as Pets for the Elderly partner with dozens of shelters and rescues across the U.S. to place companion animals into loving homes with senior caregivers. This organization in particular covers adoption and initial care fees and since 2002, has helped more than 75,000 pets start new lives with senior adopters.
So while the eventual goal of Senior Pet Connect's cheerful meet and greet will eventually lead to more fostering or adoption, in the short-term, the focus is on how animals provide a lifeline for socialization and reduced loneliness. Successful pet therapy programs in senior care facilities and hospice centers reinforce the evidence of this vital bond.
To determine the overall effectiveness of the program on its humans, Newland said DACL has a team of community outreach specialists that remain in constant contact with senior participants. "We'll engage with them on a monthly basis to learn more about their stories, the relationships they're building, and the positive impact these connections are having on them."