So we’re crazy in love with our animals, which our parent’s generation would probably think was just plain crazy. Back then, pets lived outdoors and if they got sick, they either got over it or died. But, our parents didn’t grow up watching Rin Tin Tin every Saturday morning and Lassie every Sunday evening, sobbing over Old Yeller, or reading about The Incredible Journey.
What they didn’t know and we do is that all that unconditional animal love is good for us. Researchers know for sure that petting a cat or dog lowers blood pressure, stress, agitation and seems to increase the immune system. They sure help with social isolation, an increasing concern where, since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.
The oldest baby boomers have reached 70, and could easily have had as many as a dozen cats over the years, and what, two to six dogs, on average? Now, though, boomers must ask themselves some tough questions: Can I walk a dog as much as he needs? Am I strong enough to manage a dog or in danger of being pulled and falling. Will my fixed income cover a pet’s expenses? Can I afford to pay for my cat’s chemotherapy? Who will keep my pet if I want to travel, or become ill?
Boomers’ relationship to their pets is changing, says Dr. Jenifer Hope of Hope Animal Medical Center, who’s been a veterinarian for over 25 years. “They are making decisions about size, expense, care, travel plans, and the possibility that their pet could outlive them.” She, herself, is listed in an older client’s will as a caretaker for their pet. And she says she often encounters difficult situations because owners’ lives are changing. “We know of an 8-year-old dog who needs a home because his owner is moving to memory care.”
Leona Helmsley, the very rich hotelier, was not an aberration in leaving money to take care of her pet Maltese when she died in 2007. Denise Ricks, an Edward Jones financial adviser has found it’s not uncommon for people to leave money in their wills for pet care; the problem, she says, is who will do the caring.
She has firsthand knowledge of the situation. Her late mother left three beloved cats that Ricks felt responsible for. “We hadn’t discussed the details but her cats were her love, and I told her I would take care of them” The problem was that Ricks has two cats of her own. Luckily, a client took one and Ricks arranged for the person renting her mother’s house to take care of the other two while Ricks foots the bills for food and vet care.
The past year has been a rough one for retired UGA journalism professor Pat Thomas, 69. Her mother died in August and Marcus, her standard poodle and gift from her mother in 2006, died in November. Like many Boomers, Pat and her partner, Meriwether Rhodes, have always had dogs and cats. Marcus was her fourth standard poodle.
“They are hugely glamorous, smart and very protective,” she explains. “Marcus looked like a person in a dog suit.” But, she doesn’t want another one. “Marcus jerked me off my feet more than once – my next one won’t be stronger than me.”
Thomas and Rhodes have always marked the passing of their animals with gravestones in their yard so when they moved to Athens from Boston, they brought the ashes and markers with them. An area in their backyard is a little pet cemetery. Thomas says she thinks she has “one more dog left in me.” Still as she ages she knows she’ll have to eventually consider whether to get a dog that will outlive her.
“We had neighbors in Boston who had dogs that were more the husband’s. After he died, his wife didn’t care and didn’t want them. A neighbor took them and got them adopted.”
Pros and cons
Dwain Segar, 60, and a New York transplant to Athens loves dogs, has had dogs, but not now. “My schedule and living in an apartment just won’t allow it.” He not only works full time, but also plans and hosts a jazz show on a local radio station every Saturday and produces monthly concerts at The Foundry.
Time is also an issue for Becky Parker, 62. She works at Krogers, manages her rental house, and her 90-year-old mother’s health is failing. Still she says she’s always had dog – “the energy and spirit of having a dog in your house is wonderful. It makes life complete.”
Cost, though, gives her pause because she’s on a limited income. She estimates she spends about $100 a month for her two dogs, including food and heartworm and flea medicine.
Dan Matthews, 55, is still working also. He’s office administrator in a law firm but he can’t imagine a world without a pet – which is why he was persuaded to adopt a “special needs” dog over a year ago from the Oconee County Animal Shelter. Katrina is a pit bull and was probably used as a breeder.
“Pit bulls are like a loaded gun,” he says. “She’s strong and you have to gauge what you can do with her.” Luckily, he still has a teenaged son at home because he confesses “she’s a handful.”
In weighing pet ownership in retirement, Dr. Hope observes that people are at home more, so animal ownership is about what they want in terms of companionship – be it an animal to run with or cuddle with.
Helene Marotta, 69, retired to Athens from upstate New York in 2005. She hadn’t had a dog in 20 years because she traveled so much with her job. By 2012 she decided it might time for another Pomeranian. Hers was a very considered decision.
“I bought a crate and toys to see how I felt about having them in the house,” she says. “I even put a stuffed animal in it.” After a few months of rehearsal, Marotta decided she was ready to commit, and did some online research that turned up a dog in south Atlanta that she drove over to see.
“It’s almost like looking for a life partner,” she notes. “I wanted a dog small enough to pick up, that I could carry and that I could control.” Marotta has a brain injury from a fall on her job, and has some minor balance issues. Still she’s active and another important quality was a dog that could go hiking with her.
Chaser, as she named him, turned out to be the dog with all the qualities she wanted. After she brought him home, she signed him up for training “so I could be trained.” She says all the preparation has been worth it. “He makes me laugh and keeps me active.”
Making it work over time
In 2007 Melinda Walker began a part-time errand business for clients at the Athens Community Council on Aging. She wanted to do something that allowed her more time with her newborn daughter. Over time errands became inquiries about whether she could check on a pet.
“Pet sitting called me,” she says, noting that 30 percent of her business is retirees. “Pets are their kids and if they are new to Athens, they don’t have a network to rely on when they are away.”
Walker says people are amazed that she and her husband can have a full-time business with employees just for pet sitting. But actually such services are trending up. Americans spent $5.4 billion in 2016, up 12 percent from 2014, according to the American Pet Products Association. Millennials and boomers both look to others to keep their pets exercised and looking and feeling good, millennials because of their lifestyles and boomers because of their age.
Both groups have the same attitude, says Walker. “Their pets have a routine and they want to keep it.” On the other hand, people can be embarrassed about how spoiled their pets are – the cat’s diabetic and the dog’s on Prozac. Not to worry, everything is private, she says.
In addition to pet sitting for people who travel or in some cases have temporary health issues, Walker sees an increasing need for her services in assisted living facilities.
Mary Stribling, sales manager at Iris Place, an independent living facility with apartments and cottages, agrees. “If possible, keep a senior with their animal during a move into a facility. It’s as if they’ve got a family member with them.”
Stribling says she has had some residents lose an animal and decide they don’t want another but having the presence of a neighbor’s pet helps with the losses of age. She’s also had people switch from dogs to cats when exercise becomes an issue. She thinks it’s so important that she advises anyone researching alternative living situations to make the first question on their list: are you pet friendly?
The aging pet
While previous generations may have felt it their duty to put down an aging pet, Dr. Hope says, animal medical care has improved such that a pet can live longer with quality of life. Dr. Myron Downs, who has practiced for 35 years and owns Animal Emergency Hospital agrees that pet owners’ expectations are greater now. “We don’t have any preconceived notions about an aging animal,” he notes. “We don’t make age a disease.”
Downs says he’s seen the spectrum, people whose pets are their child or their best friend, and he advises owners to let their vet help them with some of the decision making. “We can help a pet owner evaluate an animal so they can objectively decide. We can counsel them on what to focus on: Can the animal eat by himself? Does it look like it’s in obvious pain. Does she want to drink water?
We can educate them as what will happen next so they will know what to expect.”
He says owners will ask if they are being cruel; “we can help them know whether a pet is at the end of its life, the half-way point, or later. Each phase of life is different and we want them to live with dignity no matter the phase.”
Mature male seeks loving human.
Joe is about 12 and is currently staying at the Athens Humane Society. After his owner died, relatives dropped him off there a few months ago. He’s had all his shots, a thorough examination and even dental surgery. He’s sweet and affectionate. You can’t go wrong. Call and make an appointment to meet him. 706-769-9155. If he’s been adopted by the time you call, there will be others.
Grown-ups are great!
Puppies and kittens aren’t for everyone, particularly as we age. They can take a lot of time, care, and energy. Instead, consider adopting an older pet. You won’t have to guess what size they’ll be; physical and personality traits will be clear. If they’re a teenager or young adult, they’re at a good age to train, have some social skills and musical coordination. And if you want a “lap-pet,” that trait will be easier to find in an adult animal because not all puppies and kittens grow up to be pets that like to be cuddled.
Robotic cat provides company
Becky Parker’s 90-year-old mother, Jane Arthur lost her eyesight completely last year, mandating a move into a long-term care facility. “She can’t read or watch TV – it has radically changed her life,” says Parker. “After eye surgery, she even had visual hallucinations that were sometimes scary. I’ve been worried about her getting bored and depressed, and hoped the robotic cat could be a distraction.”
Made by Hasbro and selling for $90, the cats come in three models (orange tabby, creamy white and silver with white mitts). They purr, stretch, and meow. Mrs. Arthur has a white one she’s named Twinkles. Parker says it seems to be helping.
The Pet Column