Howard Cutler knows the joy animals can bring. His childhood memories are filled with stories of his family's two dogs and cats. After moving into a senior housing complex in Atlanta, Culter adopted a Shih Tzu named Ollie from a fellow resident who could no longer care for the animal. For seven years the pair was inseparable until Cutler's Parkinson's disease forced him into a different assisted care facility that didn't allow dogs.
"He was my friend and my companion, and giving him up was very difficult for me," Cutler says. As much as he wanted to keep little Ollie, Cutler knew he needed to find a home for his beloved pet among his neighbors in the senior complex. "Ollie was loved by everyone there, but I was worried that I wouldn't find the right person."
Cutler did find that right person in friend and neighbor Nancy Markovich. "Howard was heartsick that he had to give up Ollie," Markovich recalls. "So I offered to adopt Ollie and promised to take good care of him."
Dr. Duffy Jones, an Atlanta veterinarian who cares for Ollie, says pets provide much needed comfort to older people. "The value that animals bring to people is amazing," he says. "I've seen older people struggle financially and not feed themselves so they can feed their animal. Their pet is the reason they get up in the morning."
But when aging pet owners find themselves unable to care for their animals, surrendering the pet is often the best course of action. "Most of the owners understand they're sick and their pet needs care," he says. "They want to make a plan for their pets. It's a real source of comfort."
Dr. Jones thinks having a succession plan for the pet should happen as early as possible--preferably before the pet owner becomes too ill, or needs to move to a care facility. He offers these tips for finding a new home for a loving animal:
- Adoption: If your loved one is the pet owner, ask your loved one's friends to see if they can offer a new home to the animal.
- Talk to a vet: Veterinarians have many resources at their disposal and can often help re-house a pet. No-kill shelters can also be a useful option, and there are many non-profit organizations around the U.S. that will also assist older adults in finding new homes for their pets.
- Get the owner's input: Be sure to let the pet owner have a say in the decision. Ask them who they would like to keep their pet. "Often older people don't have a lot of family around, so they worry what will happen to their pet," explains Dr. Jones. "I can see animal owners get physically relieved when we tell them we've found the animal a new home. It's not uncommon for them to cry."
- Allow for bonding: Ideally, the current owner will help the pet transition to its new owner, who might first visit with the pet for an extended period of time, take the animal for walks, or care for it in the new home for short periods of time before full-time ownership begins.
- Gone but not forgotten: Once an adoption or re-housing takes place, allow the previous owner to have continued contact with the pet.
Dr. Jones says euthanizing a pet should be a last resort. "Some older people think that putting the animal down is best because the animal is so bonded to that person," he says. "We usually talk them out of it and explain that there are so many people who can care for the animal, and then we work to re-house those animals."
With so much research touting the physical and mental boost animals provide to humans, Dr. Jones advises that older people keep their pet for as long as possible, and he sympathizes with family members who are at a loss at what to do.
"The thought of taking care of a person and their pet can be overwhelming," he notes. "Sometimes older people haven't trained their pets well. But what people don't see is that the animal means so much. Taking them away often makes the elderly deteriorate health-wise."
Markovich has no regrets about adopting Ollie, and made the transition as smooth as possible for both pet and owner. She inherited Ollie's food dishes from Cutler and even places them, with the dog's favorite rug, in the same spot in her kitchen. The twosome go for daily walks and Markovich hopes that she's kept Ollie trained to Cutler's standards.
Every month, Cutler gets to see his favorite companion when Markovich brings Ollie for a visit. "When he comes to see me, he's overjoyed," says Cutler. "But when Nancy is ready to leave, he goes to her side to let me know he was happy to see me, but he is leaving with Nancy. I feel sad about that, but also happy that I was able to find a home for him."
Markovich is equally grateful for the opportunity to help a friend in need and find the loving companionship that a pet brings. "Ollie sits by me on the sofa, sleeps on my bed, and we are thick as thieves. He is a true blessing for me."