Older laps for older cats

Sheila Crofut never thought of herself a cat person, but when she was asked to take in a 13 year-old black-and-white kitty named Chin Chin, she was game.

Chin Chin’s previous owners were forced to give her up when a grandchild proved allergic to cats. Crofut had heard that cats were independent creatures, so Chin Chin’s insistence on sleeping in her bed, munching her toes in the middle of the night and demanding a human presence – gently demanding, of course – disarmed her. “Chin Chin just changed my approach,” she told us this week.

Sheila and Chin Chin came together as two of the first participants in a worthy new program developed by PAWS called Pets and Loving Seniors – get it? PALS? – that pairs senior citizens with senior cats for mutual companionship and good health. Judy Hartstone, PAWS executive director, says senior pet owners on limited incomes can find pet care financially and logistically overwhelming, but are reluctant to part with their pets because of the vital social connection they provide. Pet health can decline as the food dish goes unfilled or veterinary visits fall off. “Instead of the animal being a source of love, it’s a source of stress,” Hartstone told us. She saw this difficulty first-hand as her own mother struggled to care for her two dogs in California. Hartstone visited her mother regularly and helped with the dogs’ care as much as she could. But she came away feeling that there should be an agency to help seniors keep their pets and keep them healthy.

Things began taking shape at Helpline House, where older clients sometimes came in for food vouchers not for themselves, but for their pets. This led staffers to wonder about seniors who could benefit from Helpline services but felt reticent about approaching the agency; might they feel more comfortable seeking assistance if they had a pet? Once in the door, they could meet with a social worker who could help assess their overall needs.

As usually happens in this community, people started talking; Helpline got in touch with PAWS, which led to an expanded foster program linking seniors of both the two- and four-footed varities. The animal welfare group maintains official “ownership” of each cat (a notion with which the cats would no doubt take issue) while paying for food, litter, accessories and veterinary care. The cats’ new stewards get the physical and emotional benefits of pet companionship, which studies have shown include reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The cats benefit, too; felines long in the tooth face a competitive disadvantage against younger peers in the adoption queue.

The PALS program now has its own directors to pair up older cats with older laps; islanders with either to offer can contact the PALS program at 842-2451 or paws@pawsbainbridge.org. Or you can just make a donation; sources close to the project say salmon or tuna are preferred, though regular cat foot would do too.

Sheila and Chin Chin offer a glimpse of the program’s potential. Long-time Review readers will recall that Sheila served on the Winslow and post-annexation councils from 1989 to 1993 and two years in the Peace Corps after that, and has a long history of activism on the island. While she volunteers at St. Cecilia Catholic Church near her apartment home, she has slowed down of late and says caring for Chin Chin – whom she describes as “a kick” – helps create structure in her life. “For me, it’s like having a little baby,” she told us. “It shapes my day.”