At the senior center in Oceanside, California, a woman named Bev told me about her most nagging fear: the question of whether she or her beloved dog, Buddy, will die first. She can't bear the thought of losing him; she also can't bear the thought that, after she's gone, he'll be sent to a shelter or simply abandoned. She knows that sometimes, when pets outlive their senior owners, they're dropped off at the pound or given away carelessly by families or programs that have other things to worry about. "I think about this a lot," she said.
Bev was here to pick up a couple pounds of pet food for Buddy, a terrier mix, and for her massive cat who looked like some sort of leopard-lion hybrid. The pet food comes from AniMeals, a non-profit that serves over 7,000 pounds of pet food every month to seniors in Southern California who are low-income, homebound, or disabled. Sometimes AniMeals makes in-home deliveries, but usually the senior citizens pick up the food at distribution centers. Many of the seniors, like Bev, have no other means to find their pets' next meal.
For decades, programs like Meals on Wheels focused on bringing food to humans who needed it, which is noble and great. But in the 80s, a volunteer with Meals on Wheels noticed that one of her clients was dividing her supply of food into two portions, whispering to her cat, "We get to eat today." With the sinking realization that this woman was sacrificing her own health for the sake of her cat's, the volunteer drove straight to San Diego's Helen Woodward Animal Center and presented the problem. AniMeals was created through the Center in 1984.
Senior citizens have specific nutritional needs, which is why certain programs—like Angels Depot in Oceanside, a charity that teams up with AniMeals—carefully structure their food packages to make sure they're hitting all the necessary nutritional benchmarks. Illnesses and an overall decline in physical health can contribute to these specific dietary needs, so if a senior manages to find a program that delivers them food, it's very important that they eat all of it. Not half; not a third.
Of course, if your pet was starving, you'd share your meals with them, too. But pets aren't supposed to eat human food—the list of commonplace foods that can harm them is long and surprising (avocados, onions, dairy)—which is why AniMeals helps the helpless who would give anything to save their even-more-helpless pets. As AniMeals Supervisor Erin Odermatt told me, "By providing pet food, we're relieving one of the stresses of pet ownership. Our goal is to keep seniors with their pets for as long as possible and to keep the pets out of shelter situations."
As anyone who's ever had a pet knows, it can be hard to quantify the value of their companionship—there's the unconditional love, the constant furry presence, the feeling that you're their favorite person in the entire world. But for seniors, this companionship has heightened implications. Pets provide a reason for lonely, homebound seniors to be active, to get out of the house (for walks, or pet food pick-ups like this one), to interact with another creature, and to invest in something other than themselves. In 1999, a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Societyfound that "senior citizens who own pets are less likely to be depressed, are better able to tolerate social isolation, and are more active than those who do not own pets."
Even a study last year, which lamented "the poor methodological quality of pet research," admitted that "pet ownership and animal-assisted therapy are likely to continue due to positive subjective feelings many people have toward animals." And those "subjective feelings," for AniMeals participants, are more like lifelines.
Before Bev found Buddy, she knew she needed companionship. But after her last dog—a Pomeranian—died, Bev felt like she couldn't go through the cycle again. Then one day, her neighborhood's paper printed an ad about a dog, and after a few weeks, she finally called the number. The woman who answered the phone was shocked. "Nobody wants him," she said. When Bev arrived at the woman's house, the woman opened her back door and called, "Here, Buddy! Come here, Buddy!"
Today, little Buddy is her constant companion, a dowsing rod for her emotions. He can get up on his hind legs and bark something that sounds vaguely like "I love you." Wink at him and he winks back. When a stranger approaches the house, he barks in a low voice that "sounds like it belongs to a German Shepherd," according to Bev, while her giant cat sits unmoving on top of the sofa and acts like a Sphinx. When Bev is sad, Buddy will drag over a toy and wave it around until she begins to laugh. When she's feeling sick, he'll stand vigil over her, whining in a sad, high-pitched cry.
"I like animals better than humans," Bev told me, laughing. Other than Buddy and her Sphinx cat, she describes herself as "completely alone."
As people get older, they often become invisible: Their families ignore them, drift away from them, move away and can't make it home for Christmas, die off. Most of the seniors I talked to didn't have computers, either because they couldn't afford them or simply didn't know how to use them, so staying in touch with a computerized world grows harder and harder. And, of course, the housebound ones are quiet literally unseen by the rest of the world.
Even Pope Francis recently called this issue a mortal sin. "While we are young, we are tempted to ignore old age as if it were an illness to hold at bay," he said. "But when we become old, especially if we are poor, sick, and alone, we experience the failures of a society programmed for efficiency, which consequently ignores the elderly."
But that's where pets are better than humans: They love unconditionally. They don't care that you're no longer young or quick-minded. They'll share a meal with you, even if it's human food and it poisons them.
At the AniMeals pickup, I met a woman named Linda, who was cuddling the world's calmest Chihuahua, named Peanut. Linda told me her family is scattered around the country, but Peanut is constantly by her side. "I don't know what I'd do without her," said Linda. "She brings me so much comfort. She can even tell when I'm not feeling well."
As she was leaving, a man wearing a Santa hat called out to me. This guy was her dog walker, and he was holding a dachshund named Woody—Linda's companion of the past 16 years. Woody was waiting patiently in the car during the AniMeals pickup, because he's blind and doesn't like too much stimulation. "Touch the back of his head first," the dogwalker told me. "He can't see you."
Blind Woody moved his head toward the sound of our voices. His muzzle was grey with age, and his little paws were trembling, but I could tell he felt safe here with Linda and the dog walker, and that he knew he would eat tonight.
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