Pet project: animal companionship important for B.C.’s older adults

Adopting, fostering, volunteering or sharing life with a senior pet can bring immense benefits
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For Elain Genser, canine companionship is an important part of her life. Genser holds up paintings she has done of her past pets. (Samantha Duerksen/echoofthemountain)

As people enter their golden years, it can be as good a time as any to add companionship in life in the form of a furry friend.

Maybe you are still agile and active, looking for a pet to go on hikes with. Maybe you are looking more for a quiet companion who offers a gentle presence.

With age, there are important things to consider when looking to bring a four-legged friend into your life, but there are also many benefits.

Elain Genser recently lost her 16-year-old canine companion, Jakob, and is now actively looking to foster or adopt a senior dog. For her, the immense hole in her life that the loss left only further illustrates the benefits of having a pet.

“The fact that I live alone, I wake up in the morning, have somebody to talk to, say good morning. Jakob had slowed down the last few years and mostly slept, but he was there. It’s just another presence … It’s companionship.”

Having a dog also helps her to socialize and find the motivation to go for daily walks.

“If you’ve got a nice dog, people stop and pet your dog and they talk to you. And so many people who have lost their dogs or can’t have dogs, they’re the ones who usually want to stop and talk.”

Without a dog right now, Genser got the chance to meet at 14-year-old Labradoodle through ElderDog Canada, a national, registered charitable organization that provides loving homes (either through fostering or adoption) for older dogs who have lost a human companion. The volunteer-based organization also assists and supports older adults in the care and well-being of their canine companions, including with exercise, delivering dog food, transportation, and more.

“You know, look at this lovely dog. He’s so sweet. They haven’t been able to find a permanent home for him. I don’t know why. Because of his age, probably,” said Genser.

While Genser ultimately decides not to adopt the dog, he is successfully adopted out the following weekend.

“[ElderDog Canada] are very supportive in every way. They also take dogs in if the elderly person ends up in hospital for short-term, and they’ll see to fostering,” Genser said, adding that most of the volunteers that help her live in the neighbourhood. “It helps me so much as an older person. I know that if something happens, my dog’s going to be taken care of.”

ElderDog is just one of many organizations that offers volunteering, fostering and adopting options in Victoria.

There are also shelters, such as Victoria Animal Centre that can pair one with the right fit and give helpful advice. Below are some starter tips to get one on the right path.

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There are plenty of loveable pets at local shelters that need a new home. (Matthew Nash)

To adopt or not

Before deciding whether or not to adopt, it’s important to consider the energy and care needed for different types, temperaments and ages of dogs. No one should adopt a dog that is beyond their abilities.

Emma Hamill, manager of Victoria Animal Centre, said that when connecting people with pets, the most important consideration is that the animal is best matched in terms of lifestyle. When applying for a pet, people have the best chance if they apply for animals that sound like a match in lifestyle, medical needs and exercise.

“If it’s a super active person who goes on hikes every day or they’re out and about, then a dog that has more energy could be a good fit. Whereas if they are more homebound and have difficulties with mobility, maybe a senior animal who is okay hanging out at home a little bit longer would be a better fit for them,” she said.

Hamill gave her mother-in-law as an example. Active and in her 70s with a younger dog named Scout, she wanted to find an animal who was both a good match with Scout and also be more of a lap dog.

“And then they found Piper, a middle-aged Chihuahua. And so she was able to meet both Scout’s and my mother-in-law’s needs; a companion and playmate for Scout and the lap cuddle dog that my mother-in-law really wanted.”

It’s also important to consider the challenge of finding a place to live that is pet-friendly, Genser added. As a longtime pet owner, she said it’s been the biggest challenge of being a dog owner, especially after she got renovicted. Luckily, she found a landlord that she describes as “amazing” but she urges people to consider this before they make a decision.

The great news is that retired adopters often have more time to spend with a pet and can become the pet’s true best friend.

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Local dog walkers and organizations like ElderDog Canada can help ease the burden of caring for a pet on your own. (Courtesy of Bailey Cote)

The benefits of fostering

When deciding to bring a pet home, it’s good to remember there are options other than adoption.

Longtime Cat’s Cradle Animal Rescue volunteer Joanne Thibault said that fostering is ideal if you want the company of a pet to love and care for but if you can only accommodate them for a shorter term. A couple examples of this are snowbirds, who spent their winters elsewhere or helping prepare the animal for a permanent home.

What makes fostering important is it provides a vital link between rescue and adoption, allowing an animal to relax and experience a home environment. Some animals in the foster program might also require recovery from a medical procedure or need to be administered daily medication.

Fostering can also be a way to test the waters of pet ownership and might lead to falling in love permanently. It happened to Thibault when she first met her foster cat, a blue-eyed Siamese girl.

“Within a one-hundredth of a nanosecond, I became what in the foster volunteer world is known as a ‘foster fail.’ I immediately applied to adopt this little gal,” she said.

But Thibault hasn’t adopted all the animals she has fostered and said people shouldn’t worry about being sad when the animal has to go to its new home.

“I never in a million years expected foster volunteering to be so rewarding and joy-filled. To know that the love and care I gave a cat outfitted it to find a wonderful new home is such a beautiful feeling. Instead of feeling sad, I feel so excited for the cat and its entirely new lease on life,” she said.

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Fostering an animal is a great way to test out if a pet is a purrfect fit for you. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

Seniors adopting seniors

Another option to consider is to adopt or foster an older pet.

“For seniors, a consideration is how long we will be in a position to love and care for a pet,” Thibault said. “With COVID-19 behind us, I can say that there are many, many adult and senior pets needing new homes. It is a wonderful opportunity for pet and owner to share our senior years together.”

There are many benefits to older pets including that they are already house and litter trained, their personality is fully developed (so what you see is what you get), and they also have a lower likelihood of destructive behaviour, Hamill from Victoria Animal Centre said.

“For the senior dogs that I’ve adopted, they came from backgrounds where they were neglected. And so you can tell how grateful they are. It’s giving them their best retirement, in a way.”

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Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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