LifeCare Alliance’s Senior Pet Care initiative ensures that pet-owning, homebound seniors who receive Meals on Wheels also have food to share with their canine or feline best friend. Studies show pets promote better health and emotional well-being among the elderly.
LifeCare Alliance’s Senior Pet Care Program Contributes to MoW’s Recipients’ Health & Happiness
Several years ago, volunteers with LifeCare Alliance’s Meals on Wheels program noticed something that was simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking. Many homebound senior clients displayed deep emotional bonds with their pets and spoke of them as treasured friends and companions. But some of these seniors had insufficient means to purchase pet food—so they were sharing their Meals on Wheels with their animals. And that was a problem. As LifeCare Alliance’s President & CEO Chuck Gehring says, “Not only is it not healthy for Fido to be eating sweet-and-sour chicken, but for most of our clients, their hot midday meal is the most nutritious one they’ll eat daily. One-third of their recommended daily calories come from our meals so they need to be eating the whole thing themselves.”
Nearly 65 percent of the 6,000 Meals on Wheels clients LifeCare Alliance serves own a cat or dog. That pet “is their depression counselor, their best friend, and often their sense of security,” Gehring reports. But since some 70 percent of these clients live on less than $1000 per month, feeding their best friends can be a financial challenge.
Gehring is convinced of the health benefits of pets—and research backs up his intuitions. Studies on the health effects of pets for the elderly show that the animals promote social interaction, psychosocial function, life satisfaction, and mental function, while decreasing depression and improving psychological well-being. Keeping pets healthy can also contribute to helping the seniors stay in their homes longer—and that benefits society as well as the seniors. AARP calculates that for each senior kept independent in her own home–versus entering into an assisted living or nursing care facility—states save an average of $62,000 per person per year (mainly from reduced Medicaid and Medicare costs).
Although LifeCare Alliance had no budget to start a new program to feed clients’ pets, Gehring swung into action. “Our approach is to do what the clients need and then find the money to pay for it.” He turned first to Kal Kan, a pet food manufacturer located outside Columbus. The company was happy to donate food that couldn’t be sold, yet was perfectly safe. “These companies might have a bag of food that’s been dropped and ripped open, or that’s been taken off the shelf because the packaging is getting changed. If this food isn’t donated, it just ends up in landfills,” Gehring says.
Lifecare Alliance’s ability to receive large donations from pet food corporations is made possible by its ownership of a large warehouse with a truck-docking station. “You have to be able to receive whole pallets of donations,” he explains.
Today the Senior Pet Care program enjoys donations from Wal-mart, Iams, and Banfield in addition to Kal Kan. It has attracted a large number of new volunteers. Animal-lovers now give their time to man the 24 weekend routes of deliveries of pet food to MoW clients and to sort and repackage the donated food in the warehouse. These individuals have also made financial contributions to the program. Those, coupled with grants LifeCare Alliance has obtained, have enabled the organization to help some clients pay their vet bills.
“I go into these homes all the time,” Gehring says of the Meals on Wheels seniors. “And these animals are just their life.”