A Warm Meal and a New Best Friend

By Mike Morris December 15, 2012 12:00
Elton with foster volunteer Diana Luce. The elderly Chihuahua was left in the night drop box at Animal Control

Elton with foster volunteer Diana Luce. The elderly Chihuahua was left in the night drop box at Animal Control

Improving the quality of life for both people and pets is the aim of a new program matching Tuolumne County Meals on Wheels clients with dogs and cats needing homes.

Under the program, willing seniors will provide foster homes for pets from the county Animal Control shelter until permanent owners are found.

“They would provide care instead of just receiving it,” says Christine Brockmire, treasurer of Friends of the Animal Community (FOAC), a nonprofit group that matches shelter pets with new homes. The new Senior Pet Assistance Program will likely begin in January.

FOAC has already lined up six to eight animals to pair with Meals on Wheels clients, who are often homebound due to age, illness or disability. “These are older, mellower cats and dogs,” Brockmire says. “We think they’d be perfect companions.”

The idea came from Mike Ruggles, CEO of Sierra Senior Providers, which operates the Sonora-based Meals on Wheels program. After a client’s RV was destroyed by fire in mid-2012, the meal delivery driver volunteered to temporarily care for the displaced man’s dog.

“We thought, ‘What would happen if our clients fostered pets that needed a home?’” says Ruggles, adding that caring for a pet can provide seniors with companionship, added motivation to get out of bed in the morning, and incentive to stay physically active.

But with that friendship comes expense. For some seniors receiving Meals on Wheels, the cost of caring for a pet – especially an older one needing medical care – is too much. As a result, FOAC plans to pay veterinary expenses while pets in this program are in a senior’s care, says Darlene Mathews, the group’s founder. Spaying, neutering, microchips, vaccinations, medicines, and other veterinary costs – an average $220 per pet before placement – will be covered.

Sinbad, age 7 or 8, was left behind at an empty house

Sinbad, age 7 or 8, was left behind at an empty house

Meals on Wheels, which already provides dog and cat food to clients who need it, will continue to do so for seniors providing pets with foster homes. Cost typically runs from $30-$40 a month.

If a foster owner becomes ill or is otherwise unable to care for a dog or cat, FOAC will take the animal back and care for it until the senior recovers and is willing to resume caring for the pet.

Formerly Friends of Animal Control, FOAC, since its inception in 2001, has helped place more than 2,000 cats and dogs – half from Animal Control and half from the community at large.

Thanks to FOAC and other rescue groups, most adoptable dogs brought to the shelter are spared, says Animal Control Manager Jennifer Clarke. Only dogs that are very old, sick or have severe behavioral problems are euthanized – 166 of the 677 dogs impounded in 2011.

The kill rate for cats, by contrast, has risen. Nine out of 10 cats admitted to the shelter are euthanized. In 2011, that meant the deaths of 857 of 980 cats impounded; of those, 263 were kittens, Clarke said.

“Many of these were perfectly healthy, socialized animals – there’s simply no place for them,” she says. “The take-home message is, spay and neuter your pets.”

She sees the senior-pet program as a positive, helping some people determine if they can manage a pet full-time. “The only downside may be giving an animal up,” says Clarke, “which is why I ‘fostered’ my dog for 17 years.”

That sounds good to Mathews. Ideally, she says, seniors will want to permanently adopt their foster pet. Careful consideration will go into placing the proper pet in each home, with hopes it will be a good fit.

Financed by donations, fundraising and grants, FOAC’s annual budget varies year to year but typically tops $50,000 annually, according to Brockmire. The group has applied to be part of the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), a program under which federal employees help fund charities with voluntary payroll deductions.

If cleared by the Animal Welfare Fund, which screens animal-related charities applying to be part of the campaign, FOAC in 2014 could begin collecting those donations from local employees of the Forest Service, Social Security Administration, Postal Service and other federal offices. The amount it might receive is uncertain, but federal employees give nearly $15 million to animal-related charities annually. Part of any funding received would help pay for the new senior-pet program.

FOAC has also applied for a grant from the Sonora-based Black Hat Foundation, which is expected to make a decision by late spring, Brockmire says. The senior-pet program, she adds, will begin in 2013 nevertheless. “We’ll just use our regular resources to carry it until we get more help,” she says.

According to a recent count, 76 of Meals on Wheels’ 235 clients already own dogs, and 38 have cats. Questions on an October survey of clients included “What are the barriers for owning a pet today?” and “Would you consider fostering a pet if the cost of the food and medical care were paid for?”

“About eight to 10 percent of our respondents say they’d be interested in having a pet,” says Ruggles. Next, FOAC will prescreen the most likely foster-care candidates with in-home visits.

Once a dog or cat is permanently adopted, she notes, FOAC will not continue paying medical expenses. And just how long a senior can provide a pet with foster care without committing to ownership, Mathews adds, “is something we’ll have to determine on a case-by-case basis.”

There are now about a dozen FOAC foster homes in addition to area businesses that board former shelter animals. The need for more foster homes is great, Mathews says, and the goal of the new senior pet program is to inspire at least 10 potential caregivers to volunteer.

The Meals on Wheels pilot program could possibly expand to seniors using other services, including those provided by the Area 12 Agency on Aging and the local Veterans Affairs office in East Sonora.

“The sooner the program starts, the better,” says Ruggles. “I’ve seen how a pet can improve a senior’s attitude, and it’s remarkable. Sometimes depression can just disappear.”

Twain Harte resident Diana Luce, 67, a retired veterinary nurse, has been fostering older dogs for FOAC for the past seven years. She encourages other seniors to do the same.

“The old guys are the best guys,” says Luce of the three older dogs she is now fostering. “They’re the most grateful and least needy. All they need is a warm place to sleep, a good senior diet, and lots of love and affection.”

Contact Darlene Mathews at (209) 768-3630.

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Mike Morris December 15, 2012 12:00
Write a comment

No Comments

No Comments Yet

Let me tell you a sad story. There are no comments yet, but yours can be the first!

Write a comment
View comments

Write a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*