An elderly man’s best friend

A local organization is putting a unique twist on the adage “dogs are a man’s best friend.”

The Petting Dogs project (photo credit: JSPCA)
The Petting Dogs project
(photo credit: JSPCA)
Since 2016, the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been nurturing two flagship projects in the Jerusalem area that aim to bring cats and dogs to the arms and laps of senior citizens.
Studies have consistently demonstrated the psychological benefits conferred to children who are raised alongside a dog or a cat; and petting animals has been shown to boost the effectiveness of ongoing therapy in cancer patients.
But recently, a series of studies has found the ownership of a pet among the elderly strongly correlates with a significant drop in the recurrence of secondary health problems such as migraines, muscle pain and allergies.
Seniors who live with a pet visit the doctor less frequently and are less likely to contract serious disease such as cancer or heart disease. And among those who have suffered a heart attack, pet owners enjoy higher chances of recovery.
Among the first in Israel to leverage these benefits was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which spearheaded an effort to pair pets with seniors in 2013.
After three years, the baton was taken up by the JSPCA, headed by Adi Lahav.
“We took this endeavor under our wings because we identified it as a social undertaking with great promise,” Lahav recounts. “Apart from the moral value in protecting and cherishing domestic animals, there is a potential here to contribute a real benefit to Israeli society.”
The first pet project, aptly named “Dogs and Friends,” strives to assist elderly persons who own a pet but whose ability to properly care for it has severely deteriorated with age.
“We essentially enable a dog and its senior owner to keep living together,” Lahav explains. “Owners who find it increasingly difficult to take care of their dog would normally have to just give them up at some point. We make sure this does not happen.”
The JSPCA volunteers involved in “Dogs and Friends” regularly visit the elderly program participants to help in the care of their pets. They come to walk a dog or to change a cat’s litter box. They even take a pet to the veterinarian when necessary.
The second pet initiative led by the JSPCA ventures one step further. Rather than limit the joy and comfort of a pet to full-fledged owners, the organization reaches out to senior citizens who would love a pet but for one reason or another cannot keep one.
It has been shown that even a one-hour petting session on a regular basis may confer significant health benefits to the elderly. So why not bring a pet all the way to their doorstep? The “Petting Dogs” project aims to do just that. Volunteers with their own pet arrange to visit a nearby retirement home or hostel with their cat or dog and afford the residents some quality time with their furry companions; by some accounts, these places are said to “light up” when the animals arrive. Participating geriatric homes have branded the project a resounding success.
All told, the JSPCA has recruited a few dozen volunteers around Jerusalem who have been the lifeblood of these two main projects – from young students to middle- aged couples.
“We are gradually creating little kernels of volunteers in different neighborhoods, each growing slowly on its own by word of mouth,” explains Eyal Kolin, JSPCA’s project manager for the Jerusalem area. “Once this activity reaches a certain critical mass, it will pick up speed and become an GIVING BACK An elderly man’s best friend Bringing pets all the way to senior citizens’ doorsteps: The Petting Dogs project. (Photos: JSPCA) RELIGION | IN JERUSALEM 15 integral part of the local community, and a model for the rest of the country.”
Still, the JSPCA is actively looking for more volunteers for both initiatives, the demand for which is steadily increasing as more and more elderly Jerusalemites catch wind of the organization’s efforts to bring a measure of joy to their demographic. Ultimately, the JSPCA’s hope is to double their manpower within a year’s time.
Kolin and Lahav believe the potential of their undertaking extends beyond the current scope of their activities.
“The foundation of all of the JSPCA’s work is compassion – for humans and for animals alike,” stresses Kolin.
“Fostering a social sensitivity to the weak and unfortunate among us will help create a better society, plain and simple. Israel today does not take good care of its elderly, nor of its animals; we’re trying to change both.”
Lahav also points to an unanticipated impact the JSPCA’s work has had around Jerusalem. “It turns out that calling on people to take care of animals and the elderly has created an atmosphere of cooperation between residents from all parts of the city, even among different sectors. We have a Jewish teenager from Armon Hanatziv and an Arab girl from Beit Safafa volunteering together to take care of a Jewish elderly woman. These initiatives are blurring our borders.”
“At the end of the day, house pets today are an inseparable part of us,” Kolin adds. “If we learn to take care of them well and to make full use of their potential to better our society, all of us will reap the benefits.”
‘The foundation of all of the JSPCA’s work is compassion – for humans and animals alike.’