Pets and Seniors

October 22, 2012  

The author illustrates the many issues facing older people trying to care for their pets

By Kim Wolf, originally published on If Dogs Could Talk

(photo courtesy of Bad Rap)

I’ve worn two hats in my career – I’ve worked as a geriatric social worker, and I’ve also worked in animal shelters – so I cringe when I see posts about senior dogs being “dumped” in shelters by “heartless and selfish” people who are “irresponsible” and “should have known better than to get these pets in the first place.”

Let me pre-empt those who will dismiss what I’m about to say by acknowledging that yes, some people irresponsibly surrender their senior dogs to shelters because they have failed them, plain and simple. And yes, those people really do “suck.”

But this post is a reminder – or perhaps a lesson – that not every senior dog that arrives in a shelter is there because “people suck.” Rather, some of these pets arrive in shelters because the lack of resources to support elders with pets sucks.

I’ve worked firsthand with elders who could barely care for their own needs, but devoted everything they had to their beloved pets. Many times those pets were their only companion, having lost or outlived their family and friends. Sometimes those pets were their sole source of unconditional love. In some cases, an elder’s pet was his only link to the past, having experienced life’s milestones together.

As a geriatric social worker, my job was to support the client – i.e., the elder human – and ensure his or her safety and well being. I quickly learned that because the human/animal bond runs so deep, I could not serve my client without considering his or her relationship with the pet.

Social workers are trained to be “culturally competent” and respect that each individual client gets to dictate what he values and considers important. He gets to decide which relationships have meaning, whether it is a blood relative, a spouse, a friend, or a same-sex partner.

What was always missing in our “cultural competency training” was the role that pets play in our lives and the importance people ascribe to their relationships with their companion animals.

It was rare that I came across an elder who did not care about his pet’s wellbeing. And in those rare cases where that happened, a mental illness and incapacitation was always to blame.

But all-too-frequently, I came across elders who struggled to care for – or just keep – their beloved pets. They had health problems that made it impossible to walk their dogs; they lived on fixed incomes that couldn’t absorb vet bills; they lacked access to public transportation that allowed them to bring their pets across town to low-cost clinics. Sometimes the elder had to move into senior housing facilities, which rarely allow pets (especially dogs). Sometimes the elder had to move in with a family member who was allergic to or did not welcome dogs. Even when the elder lived in his or her own home, sometimes home health aides would refuse to visit if a dog was present. Sometimes an elder needed surgery that required a temporary hospitalization, but that elder had no one to care for the pet while away.

In all of these cases, the elder was forced to make heart-wrenching decisions. And in many of these cases, unfortunately those decisions were made by somebody other than the elder.

So next time you see an “URGENT” post about a senior pet that was “DUMPED” in a shelter by some heartless jerk, I hope you’ll stop and consider that there’s often more to the story.

Judging and criticizing does nothing to improve the situation for shelter dogs; having compassion and understanding for the people who care about them does.

Demographics show that people are living longer, and the sheer number of elders in our country is increasing. The support networks for elders with pets is lacking.

We can either throw up our hands and say “people suck,” or we can roll up our sleeves and support them.

Here are a few programs that do just that:
Jewish Association Serving the Aging
Humane Society of Berks County

« « Dispelling Myths about Pit Bulls | Nosing Around » »


6 Responses to “Pets and Seniors”
  1. barbaraleeanderson07090 says:

    Beautiful insight into this problem.  My father, before he passed, had a Doberman that he adored.  He and my mother struggled to care for the dog.  But, because the dog was my father’s “heart,” the family understood and helped wherever possible.  Personally, I support the “roll up our sleeves and support them” approach.

  2. KellyGibson says:

    When I think of seniors being dumped at the shelters, it’s not by their elderly caregivers, it’s by their family members who have decided the dog is a problem and has to go – either because the relative is being moved into assisted living, a hospital, or another family member’s home. THESE are the people who suck, because the senior citizen who is so close to the end of their life deserves more than anyone to be surrounded by those they love, INCLUDING their 4-legged best friends.  
    But your post points out the need for assistance for these people, to allow them to continue to keep their dog while in their waning years. You may have just lit the spark of a new community outreach project for my rescue, so thank you. Now I’m off to do some research…

  3. DellaEarley says:

    Very good story. It is so true. That is why I was careful not to pair a very young dog with a senior when I was working in rescue. I wasn’t always popular when I discouraged the Senior Human from adopting a 6 month old chihuahua that was probably going to outlive them by 10 years. I also encouraged a family member to get engaged in the process if possible and had them co-sign. I don’t know if it actually helped, but I know I always felt better about adopting a dog out to a senior if I had a younger family on board with the decision. I felt there was someone else vested in the dogs best interest.

    • StubbyDog says:

      @DellaEarley You make some very good points, thanks for sharing Della.

    • barbaraleeanderson07090 says:

       Popular or not, Della, I agree that your decision to discourage a senior from adopting a 6-month old pup was the right decision.  And involvement of a younger family member in the adopted dog’s life is essential — you never know when a senior can become ill, unable to get around, or worse.  Always great to hear when rescuers have the dog’s AND human’s best interests at heart (even when the human can’t see what’s best for them).