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A New Program Connects Vulnerable Seniors With Pets

Senior isolation has become an increasing threat over the past several years, and scientific research supports what we’ve always known to be true: animals are a lifeline, and they enhance our health and overall well-being, especially for older adults. 

That’s why the Humane Rescue Alliance and the DC Department of Aging and Community Living (DACL) teamed up in March 2021 to launch Senior Pet Connect, a program that aims to combat senior isolation through in-person and virtual events. With increasing popularity, the program hosted eight events that reached hundreds of DC seniors in 2021.

 

The Power of Pets

The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the important role animals play for all of us, with many people turning to animals for companionship during an unprecedented time of social isolation.

Compared to people who don’t own pets, seniors with pets are 36 percent less likely to report loneliness. Further, studies have shown that spending just 15 minutes with a pet can have positive emotional benefits and reduce feelings of loneliness.

The Senior Pet Connect makes HRA a go-to resource for seniors and their animal needs and aims to combat senior isolation by providing meaningful connections between seniors and animals to support their emotional well-being.

The inaugural Senior Pet Connect event held via Zoom featured staff and volunteers from HRA and DACL who introduced various cats and dogs to senior participants – with special appearances by Casey, a macaw parrot, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a chicken. The partnership continued with a series of Zoom events, including one dedicated to Spanish-speaking residents.

“It was such a joy. The highlight of my week,” said 66-year-old Pat Paige after a virtual Senior Pet Connect event. Paige noted how difficult it has been for seniors to have companionship while also trying to stay safe during the pandemic. 



In July 2021, as stay-at-home restrictions were lifted across the country, Senior Pet Connect held its first in-person event in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, Hero Dogs, TERRIFIC Inc. and the Walter Reed permanent supportive housing program. The hour-long event, specifically tailored toward Walter Reed’s veterans and senior housing residents, allowed more than 30 DC seniors to meet with and greet Moo and Norm, service dogs in training from Hero Dogs, Ashley, a therapy dog, and Nelly and Kawaii, two dogs adopted from HRA.

“Since I started working for DACL, I’ve wanted to start a program like this, where our community can come together over our shared love of animals,” said Laura Newland, director of DACL. “Having grown up on a farm in Michigan and being a pet parent myself, I know the joy that comes from pets. This partnership with the Humane Rescue Alliance came along at the perfect time, and we’re excited to offer older adults different ways to make meaningful connections.”

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We want to create innovative approaches that tackle a very serious concern for older adults across the country. By collaborating with human social service organizations like DACL, we can build holistic support services for vulnerable populations and for animals as well. In the nation’s capital, HRA and DACL hope to set a standard for other cities and states to follow when considering best practices to reduce social isolation and loneliness among seniors.

If a senior you know is interested in participating, please email [email protected].

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