A winning combination. Elderly take in their `visitors,' homeless pets
IT is one of those happier equations, in which demand equals supply. There are 26 million Americans over the age of 65, and 8 million of them live alone. At the same time, 10 million dogs and cats are put into animal shelters each year, and 8.5 million are never adopted. This can add up to companionship for the elderly and a home for pets.Skip to next paragraph
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Mathematics, of course, cannot quantify how Shylo, a white Bishon Frise, saved the life of Inez Ekstron, or how Ms. Ekstron saved Shylo's. The two recuperated together, taking ``siestas'' each day and feeding the birds outside Ekstron's house in Minneapolis. Shylo is no longer a skinny, mat-haired puppy terrified of people. Ekstron is no longer lonely.
Ekstron's daughter thought she might have to quit her job to take care of her mother after her previous dog died a year ago. ``But since she got the dog, she's turned around 180 degrees,'' says Donna Loegering.
Across the country, animal shelters are playing the dating game. Last week their efforts to match dogs and cats in shelters with senior citizens got a big boost when Ralston Purina launched its $1 million ``Pets for People Program.'' During the next year, Purina will foot the bill to get some 10,000 cats and dogs out of animal shelters and into the homes of the elderly.
This kind of program, coupled with a slew of local ones that have sprung up in the last couple of years, comes not a month too soon, says Philip Arkow, who runs the Pikes Peak Humane Society, in Colorado Springs, Colo. In March, a law passed in 1983 will go into effect allowing senior citizens in subsidized housing to keep cats and dogs in their apartments. That will open up 900,000 units.
While not all of those residents will find themselves a four-legged live-in, ``easily thousands and thousands of people are waiting for animals in federally subsidized housing,'' he says.
Scientists long have believed that pets are good for elderly people. Beside giving them an outlet for affection and a reason to get up in the morning, pets act as a ``social lubricant,'' says Randall Lockwood, a scientist at the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. ``One thing we all have in common is we like animals,'' he says.
Pets go a long way toward solving one of the biggest problems for the elderly - withdrawal from others - because ``you cannot be a pet owner and be disengaged,'' Mr. Lockwood says. At a minimum, ``you have to go shopping and take him for walks.''
Until the last few years, however, scientists have been unable to prove that animals have a healthy physiological effect on people. But studies indicate that pets can help people recover quickly.
At the same time, the notion that animals might be dangerous to have around older people is evaporating. A survey of nursing homes in Minnesota showed that animals posed less risk to patients - in causing accidents, for example - than other activities did.
All this is good news for homeless cats and dogs, which are suddenly star attractions as visitors at institutions like nursing homes and hospitals. Pets are going places no one ever dreamed of - including, Mr. Arkow hopes, an AIDS hospital in Houston soon.
``The barriers have really come down,'' as institutions recognize that animal visits are no more dangerous to older people than other activities, says Paula Kielich, who runs Philadelphia-based Pals for Life.