We know that senior people partnered with pets benefit from the companionship and numerous health benefits. Walking the dog and playing with the cat offer exercise opportunities and lower blood pressure, for example. I like to call it the “Pet Effect.”
Sadly, many seniors have difficulty feeding themselves, let alone their animal companions. Even if folks like my 92-year-old parents remain relatively healthy, mobility issues can make shopping a challenge. In the current pandemic crisis, fear increases when seniors are advised to stay home. Worry about their ability to provide for their cat or dog can increase the fear, anxiety, and stress in seniors.
For many years, programs like Meals On Wheels meet this need by providing nutrition (and human companionship during visits). Today, the program also supports seniors who share their lives with pets.
To learn more about the program, and how readers can get involved, I reached out to Shanna Gauvin. She manages the pet-related initiatives at Meals on Wheels America.
What is Meals On Wheels? How does it work?
Meals on Wheels America is the national membership organization supporting a network of 5,000 independently operated local, community-based senior nutrition programs across the country. Each meets the needs of the seniors in their communities in unique ways.
“We work to empower them by providing funding, leadership, education, research and advocacy support, said Gauvin. “We surveyed our members last year and found that roughly half of them provide pet services in some form or fashion. Since 2007, part of our support has included grant funding to our members to support their pet programs.”
Explain the importance of providing pet meals for seniors with pets.
“Pet support programs (like AniMeals programs) have become a very popular offering that Meals on Wheels programs provide,” said Gauvin. The organization’s “more than just a meal” offers more than feel-good benefits. She says the companionship and sense of purpose pets provide to seniors lowers rates of loneliness and social isolation, illness, and hospitalization.
Pet programs also help ensure that seniors benefit from the nutrition provided to them. Otherwise, many senior clients experiencing food insecurity share their own delivered meal with their pet rather than see their pet go hungry.
“This speaks to the strength of the human-animal bond for the seniors our member programs serve,” she says. So, providing pet meals alongside those for human clients ensures that both get the nutrition and support they need to stay healthy.
How are the programs funded?
In the past, grants from Banfield Charitable Trust provided support. But in October 2015, Banfield Charitable Trust handed over all funding and grants administration responsibilities for their Pet Assistance Grant Program to Meals on Wheels America.
“Since 2007, the grant program has distributed more than $2.4 million in funding and pet food donations to 330 local Meals on Wheels programs across the nation that are working to keep pets and their homebound seniors together,” said Gauvin. Not all pet programs receive these grants, however. Since each operates independently, some may be self-funded locally.
Gauvin says now that work has expanded with a national partnership with PetSmart Charities. Over the next three years, Meals on Wheels America plans to invest in local member programs to allow them to launch new programs and expand existing pet support resources in more communities across the country.
“We will also undertake research initiatives to better understand what Meals on Wheels clients and their pets need, and how our network is uniquely able to support seniors and their pets aging in place together.”
How can people encourage pet support services for seniors in their community?
Each local Meals on Wheels program operates independently. Many communities across the country already provide seniors they serve with pet services of some sort.
Gaugin encourages interested readers to enter their zip code on the new Find Meals page on the Meals on Wheels America website. “Reach out to the program in their local area.” Helping the pets of seniors by supporting programs reduces fear, anxiety, and stress, and keeps our at-risk family members safe.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.