Pet project provides doggie bag

Companions: To combat low-income elderly sharing their food dropoffs with pets, a meals program adds pet food to deliveries.

Life After 50

September 09, 2001|By Beverly Beyette | Beverly Beyette,Special to the Sun

Merle Kenny, like so many low-income elderly people living alone, showers her affections on her pets, particularly Mooch, a 22-year-old cat. With the help of a Long Beach, Calif., program, the 73-year-old widow never worries about how she'll keep her feline friends in food.

The program began when volunteers with Meals on Wheels began noticing a disturbing pattern: Many clients to whom they delivered cooked meals were sharing that food with their beloved pets.

"That wasn't good for them, and it wasn't good for the animals," says Bob Pratt, Volunteers of America president for Greater Los Angeles, which runs the meals program.

The benefits that older people living alone derive from pet companionship have been well-documented: lowered blood pressure, faster recovery after surgery, an impetus to interact with others (think dog-walking). Recognizing this, and not wanting the seniors to be shortchanged nutritionally, the organization began adding pet food, much of it donated, to meal deliveries to the neediest.

The senior companion pet program, which started five years ago in Long Beach, has expanded into other Southern California cities. Gradually, additional needs have been identified, and the program now reaches pet owners, such as Kenny, who are not Meals on Wheels recipients.

The Long Beach-based program provides scrip for pet care at participating veterinary clinics, "pet taxi" transportation to the clinic with a licensed pet-sitter, flea control products and donated kitty litter. It also covers the cost of boarding the pet if an owner is hospitalized.

Client Elizabeth Emberton, 70, shares her home with Kepper, an asthmatic cat who requires pills to assist his breathing and regular injections of Prednisone. She and Kepper get $200 in vet scrip a year. "I wouldn't be able to keep him if I didn't have that help. I only have Social Security," she says.

If a pet needs expensive surgery, the $200 allotment may be supplemented. Client dogs and cats must be spayed or neutered, a service that some vets provide free.

Coral Allenby, project coordinator out of Long Beach, says most of her clients would buy pet food before they bought food for themselves. "The only reason they get up each morning is to take care of their pet."

The typical client, says Pratt, is an elderly woman living alone in an apartment, frail and often homebound, squeaking by on reduced benefits, maybe $600 a month, from her late husband's Social Security. "Sad to say, very few of them have any family support. But they have this all-important dog or cat who is, literally, their whole life."

Almost as important to clients as being able to feed and care for their pets is knowing that they will be cared for should something happen to them. "The greatest anxiety," says Pratt, "is what happens if they die or have to go to the hospital and maybe never come back. They're terrified about that. One of the key things we offer them is peace of mind. They know we're going to take care of that animal."

Beverly Beyette is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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