There seems to be no end of research that shows that people, older adults in particular, reap many benefits by bringing a dog or cat into their lives. While the documentation exists, there’s no better proof than the smiles on people’s faces as they cuddle a puppy or kitten.
The Atlanta Humane Society (AHS), dedicated to the improvement of animal welfare in the Southeast by providing quality animal services, offers opportunities for volunteers to care for and interact with dogs and cats that are ready for adoption. Several older adults in Atlanta have been more than willing to answer the call.
Retired teacher Doug Martin has been volunteering at AHS for nearly a year. After spending 30 years with children, he decided he’d enjoy devoting some time to animals.
“I like being around the cats,” he said. “I come in once or twice a week to help clean up and care for them, getting them ready for adoption.”
Martin usually gets in around nine in the morning and is gone by the time the facility opens at noon. He said the hours fit well with his schedule. Once he heads home, he’s got a couple of his own cat-children to care for.
“Eight weeks ago, I took home Millie,” he explained. “She’s a good companion for me and my other cat, Junior.”
Companionship tops the list of some of the ways that pets improve the health of their owners, or ‘pet parents’, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website. Cats are also credited with providing emotional support and improving a person’s mood and overall morale.
Terry Knudsen got drawn into volunteering at AHS after she helped an acquaintance adopt a dog. “I knew someone who needed a pet in his life,” she reported. “We came here and got a puppy. It’s been the best thing for him.”
Knudsen started volunteering at the facility this last summer, after going through the orientation process. Before retiring, she was the Administrative Assistant to the New York State Society of Pathologists. Today, she shares her Atlanta home with a cat, a dog and her husband Keith, also an AHS volunteer.
“I love spending time with the dogs, and walking the gentle, older, well-trained dogs,” she said. “My husband walks the big dogs!”
Some older adults may feel unequal to the task of housebreaking a puppy or training a kitten. A good solution to that problem is to adopt a senior pet. It seems to be a perfect match, since older animals are usually already house-trained and tend to be quieter and calmer.
Stephanie Hart is part of a very special AHS program, the Visiting Pet Program. The program is set up so that a group of volunteers takes adoptable puppies to visit a nursing home, assisted living facility, mental health facility or hospice. Not only does the puppy bring joy to the patients, it also makes a good icebreaker.
“The puppy spreads joy by loving and cuddling everyone, but it’s also a perfect starting point for a conversation,” Stephanie explained. “Even if I’m not the volunteer holding the puppy, I can talk to others about their pets, find out if they like dogs, and discuss their memories of pets.”
Retired after 28 years of teaching, Stephanie has volunteered at AHS for more than 30 years. She’s part of two Visiting Pet Program groups, both of which schedule monthly visits to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta, located next to Turner Field.
Stephanie said, “My dad spent his last days at Our Lady, and I wanted to do something for them as a ’thank you’ for making his last days so peaceful. Combining my love for animals with Our Lady was perfect!
“The volunteers in my groups have become friends doing something we love. We get to socialize and we all enjoy being together. When we take a puppy to a facility, everyone—the patients and facility staff—interacts with it and us. It’s a very rich experience,” she added. “I think I get more out of this than anybody else does!”
Dogs and cats provide companionship, a routine and a sense of purpose. They also help relieve depression, reduce stress and lower blood pressure in people. One of the biggest benefits of being around animals is the socialization factor. Puppies and kittens seem to naturally draw people together and get them talking.
For the last four years, Helen Finkelstein has been giving time and energy to AHS. She started out at the Mansell facility in Alpharetta, where she walked dogs, giving them much-needed attention and exercise.
These days, she’s at the Howell Mill location working in Admissions; she mostly washes dishes and does laundry. It seems a natural fit for her after retiring from 20 years in the food service industry.
“You’d be amazed just how much there is to do,” she said, “but I enjoy coming here. It’s a real pleasure to be with these people. AHS truly appreciates all its volunteers.”
Finkelstein added that the flexibility of the volunteering schedule makes it convenient, too. She works for two hour stretches at a time, and can put in her hours anywhere from 8 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. in the afternoon.
Dogs provide protection and exercise. Since pooches need to be walked, their owners have a good reason to get outside and move around. A University of Missouri study determined that while all older adults benefited from the bonds with their pets, dog owners also benefited from the low-impact exercise they received while taking them out for walks.
“I’ve always been a volunteer, and I’ve always loved animals,” said Cynthia Hilden, explaining what drew her to AHS. A retired college dean, she relocated to Atlanta five years ago from a town with a population of 700 set in the mountains of Oregon.
Moving here brought her closer to family members, but it’s been quite a culture shock living in a sprawling metropolis in the South. AHS is one of the places where she can feel a little more at home.
Hilden has been volunteering at AHS for the past four years or so. She said that the facility is extraordinary—roomy and clean—and the staff is good to their volunteers. Generally, she devotes a few hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, happily doing whatever needs to be done.
“I feel very strongly about responsible stewardship. The way we care for others who depend upon us is a clear indication of our evolution as a society,” Hilden said. “I give as much love and care to the animals as I can while I’m here, especially since some of them have had bad experiences.”
She knows how love can turn a life around. One of her cats, a rescue named Quincy Jones, was in bad shape before she took him home. According to Hilden, today he is big, strong and healthy.
The most responsible and rewarding way to bring a pet into your life is to adopt it from a shelter. While there are no exact numbers, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®), estimates that, in the U.S., approximately 2.7 million shelter animals are adopted each year. That’s 1.4 million dogs and 1.3 million cats.
AHS adoption centers in Midtown and Alpharetta are open 7 days a week. Last year, more than 8,000 people found love at these facilities by adopting a new family member.
The AHS has many volunteering opportunities for seniors. From helping with adoptable animals, assisting their admissions team or working events, it’s easy to find a position that suits everyone’s interests and schedule. Volunteers need to commit to volunteering for six months for at least six hours per month. Volunteers are fully trained by AHS staff and experienced volunteers. Go to atlantahumane.org/volunteer to submit a volunteer application.
Read: Ready to Lend a Paw