Animal visits give the aged something to keep spirits up

March 03, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

She trembled with anticipation. Her jet-black locks were brushed until they shone. With a spritz of cologne, she was ready.

It was a spritz of doggie cologne, and her locks were brushed vigorously, down to her shaggy feet, with a wire pet brush.

Scruffy, a 2-year-old part-cocker mutt from the Humane Society of Carroll County, had to look and smell her best when she went Monday to visit 15 senior citizens at Countryside Protective Care, a Hampstead nursing home.

The humane society visiting-pet program is one of several public and private programs aimed at helping older people stay in touch with animals.

Linda Zack, adoption coordinator for the humane society, said studies show that pets are good for older people. For example, she said, stroking an animal lowers blood pressure.

"Pet-facilitated therapy," or PFT, has grown over the past 20 years as health-care workers have realized the value of contact with animals.

Every month, Ms. Zack takes pets from the shelter to visit seven area nursing homes and the Springfield Hospital Center.

As Scruffy made the rounds at Countryside, most faces lighted up.

Frances Roth came out of her room to see the dog, and said, "Oh, she's gorgeous, isn't she?"

Then Scruffy, with a little encouragement, made herself at home in Ms. Roth's lap, reaching up to wipe a soppy tongue across her cheek.

"She kissed me!" Ms. Roth said, beaming.

"This just makes her day," said Pam Engle, owner of Countryside Protective Care.

"For most of these people," she said, "that's the kind of love they can really experience -- from pets and small children."

One resident, Elva Runge, was having a difficult day. She is grieving for a friend who passed away recently, and she quietly slipped out of the room where the others had gathered to watch television and play with the dog.

As Scruffy made her way to the door, though, she paused to say goodbye to the grieving woman, and Ms. Runge smiled even as tears rolled down her cheeks.

"He loves me 'fore he's seen me," she said softly.

Nicky Ratliff, director of the Humane Society of Carroll County, said that for seniors, keeping a pet will "add years to their life, because they've actually got something that depends on them.

"If they have a dog," she said, "there's a reason to take a walk."

She said a pet can enliven an older couple's marriage. "I've seen that happen where it's brought older couples back together," she said. It gives them something to laugh over, something to talk about.

Ms. Ratliff cautioned that seniors should choose appropriate pets. The animal should be affordable, and of an age and size that its physical care is not an undue burden.

Ms. Zack said the program helps the animals, too. Several times, nursing home staff members have adopted visiting pets.

She carefully selects the animals who visit nursing homes, to make sure they're healthy, friendly and relatively calm.

Ms. Engle said her home had never had a problem with any animal that came to visit.

Before the first pet visited, she asked the residents if they had animal allergies, but they all said they didn't.

"If they were [allergic], they didn't say," she said. "They wanted the dogs more."

A similar program, Pets on Wheels, is operated by the Carroll County Department of Citizen Services.

Peggy Henderson, coordinator of volunteer services for the Department of Citizen Services, said Pets on Wheels has about 50 volunteers who take their own pets to visit seniors around Carroll County.

She said one nursing home resident, a young man who had had an accident and was uncommunicative with people, developed a liking for one particular visiting dog. That one dog was able to get through to him, she said.

Other resources are also available to pet-loving seniors.

In Carroll County, seniors get a discount on dog licenses. They pay $3 for a spayed or neutered dog instead of the regular $5. Seniors pay $5 for a non-spayed or non-neutered pet, instead of the regular $10.

The Humane Society of Carroll County also provides free spaying or neutering for pets adopted by seniors from the shelter, provided the senior uses the services of a veterinarian participating in the program.

Ms. Zack said most county veterinarians participate.

According to Shelter Sense, a publication of the Humane Society of the United States, elderly people often suffer because of landlords' no-pet policies.

To help seniors overcome landlord problems, the San Francisco SPCA offered several suggestions: Seniors should have their pets vaccinated and spayed or neutered, and keep a record to show their landlord. They should offer to sign a pet agreement with their landlord, and pay an additional pet deposit.

Sometimes it helps to invite the landlord to meet the pet in advance, the San Francisco SPCA said. And some people keep "pet references" from earlier rental housing, documenting that their pets are well-behaved and properly cared for. And in all cases, people should emphasize they will look after and clean up after the pet, and do it.

Nationally, a federal law says that seniors living in federally assisted housing cannot be discriminated against because they own pets, provided reasonable rules are followed.

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