Merle Kenny, like so many low-income elderly people living alone, showers her affections on her pets, particularly Mooch, a 22-year-old cat who never met a meal he didn't like. With the help of a Long Beach 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 the beloved pets that often are their only companions. "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. "We recognized we had a significant problem."
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 Huntington Beach, Garden Grove and the South Bay and now is in the start-up phase in Hollywood, West Hollywood and North Hollywood. Gradually, additional needs have been identified, and the program now reaches pet owners, such as Kenny, who are not Meals on Wheels recipients.
Clients include an asthmatic tabby, a budgie that answers to Baby and, of course, Mooch (nee Figaro), a neighborhood mooch that adopted Kenny about 18 years ago.
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 Garden Grove 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. The gray tabby, a stray she adopted eight years ago, is "just like my child," she adds. "He's never been outside and he doesn't care. His little world is me and him."
If a pet needs expensive surgery, the $200 scrip allotment may be supplemented. Client dogs and cats must be spayed or neutered, a service that some vets provide free to the organization.
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." Allenby recalls the first client she visited, a woman who had on hand only a loaf of bread and a carton of milk to feed her Rottweiler mix, her kitten and, presumably, herself.
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."
Beverly Elie, a 68-year-old Redondo Beach resident who shares her apartment with a hearing-and sight-impaired grandson, only recently learned that Volunteers would send people out to clip the wings and talons of her parakeet, Baby. She hasn't been able to do the wing-clipping since having hand surgery. "So many seniors are in the same position, but they don't know what to do," Elie says. "How are they going to get their pets to the doctor?" She doesn't drive and depends on a transit service for the disabled, but it won't transport pets. As for Baby, she says, "I don't know what I'd do without him."
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 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."
Emergency planning is part of the package. Nicole Dickerson, project coordinator for the month-old Hollywood program, calls it "emotional support," which includes finding people who will adopt or temporarily care for a beloved pet.
Long Beach serves about 175 clients, 70% of them women, the vast majority low-income, redefined since the energy crunch as living on $1,100 a month. The annual program budget is $90,000, with major support from the Boeing Employees Community Fund, the Archstone Foundation and the Josephine S. Gumbiner Foundation.
"They're wonderful," Kenny says of the care program. "They give me $125 a year" for vet bills and food for her family of adoptive cats. "My cats, they're what people throw away.
"They come to me all beaten up and sorry for themselves and sometimes starving. I'm a sucker," says Kenny, who has a son in Idaho.
The Hollywood start-up program already has identified about 50 clients through the Hollywood Senior Center. With $9,000 in seed money from the Mary Jo and Hank Greenberg Foundation, it plans to tap corporations and individuals and is seeking a celebrity endorsement, writing grant proposals and planning a fund-raising event for the fall.
For now, the Hollywood program is limited to delivering pet food to the center for delivery with its Meals on Wheels project. The first potential client identified in Hollywood is Susan George, 95, whose vet contacted VOA about George's 5-year-old cat, P.J., who has a kidney problem. George still does her own shopping, walking to the market, but taking P.J. to the vet is a challenge.
"I can't get my cat in a carrier, so I can't take a cab." Some friends living in Topanga have been helping, she says, but "that's an hour's ride. I hate to have them do that."
Pratt expects to be deluged with requests from the large number of elderly living in Hollywood, but funding limitations dictate a go-slow approach. "As appealing as the program is, it's neither fish nor fowl. A lot of foundations are very much committed to people causes, but something that focuses on the pet of a needy elderly, even though that pet is so important to that elderly person, that's not grist for their mill. At the same time, a lot of pet organizations purely focus on the well-being of the animals.
"It's not so easy. There isn't a natural foundation constituency."