music in the park san jose

.Senior Pets Find Their Senior People

Bay Area programs help everyone locate the perfect companion

music in the park san jose

When Sally Brook and Luna go for walks in her West Berkeley neighborhood, Brook likes to describe, out loud, what’s going on around them. 

“This house has a very big dog that’s going to bark when we go past,” she tells Luna. “But don’t be afraid.”

Luna is an 11-year-old terrier mix who’s nearly blind. That’s not a problem for Brook. When the 79-year-old was looking to adopt a dog, she only had a few requirements. She didn’t want a younger dog—“They’re too energetic, and I’m not that energetic anymore,” notes Brook. But she did want one who could go on walks with her. “It’s not fun to walk by myself,” she says. “If you have a dog, people stop and talk to you. It also gives you someone to talk to.”

According to the American Pet Products Association, boomers over the age of 65 account for 24% of current U.S. pet owners. A recent report from the organization found that a large majority—80%—cite happiness and emotional support as specific benefits of having a pet. To help facilitate this, several programs across the Bay Area exist to pair harder-to-adopt animals with the people well suited to care for them, like Brook cares for Luna.

Matching Seniors With Seniors

About 15 years ago, Berkeley Humane began its Golden Paws program, offering senior adopters a 50% reduced adoption fee on cats and dogs older than seven years.

“It really came out of the idea that an ideal home for some of our senior animals is a quieter home,” said Jeffrey Zerwekh, executive director at Berkeley Humane.

At the East Bay SPCA, which has shelters in Oakland and Dublin, and Muttville, a dedicated senior dog rescue in San Francisco, “Senior for Seniors” programs waive adoption fees entirely.

“I think everyone knows how beneficial pets can be for senior citizens—and senior pets in the shelter are often some of the most challenging to get adopted,” says Karalyn Aronow, vice president of operations at East Bay SPCA. “So we were like, well, let’s make this a win-win.”

At East Bay SPCA and Berkeley Humane, these programs connect anywhere from 12 to 15 senior pets and people a year. And at Muttville, 44% of adopters are seniors—they rescued over 500 dogs last year.

Janice Lenderman, a 67-year-old resident of Castro Valley and a volunteer at the SPCA’s Dublin shelter, saw firsthand the challenges of older pets competing for attention with younger ones. Three months after coming to the shelter, 10-year-old Missy and nine-year-old Buddy, a bonded cat pair, weren’t getting adopted. In late May, Lenderman decided to take them home herself.

“I did my best to get somebody else to adopt them,” she says. “They kept saying no, no, we’re going home with you.”

This unpredictability is common. While the idea of matching senior pets with senior people carries certain assumptions about both the humans and pets involved, shelters say it’s all about finding the right fit rather than focusing exclusively on a pet’s age, breed or even size.

“I have seniors that are 73, 74 years old that don’t want to couch-potato dogs. They want a dog that takes them for a walk,” says Sherri Franklin, the founder of Muttville. “We really try and match-make energy levels and care levels.”

This concept of matchmaking even extends across species. Claudia Hunka, the owner of Your Basic Bird in Berkeley, says that lifestyle is always a consideration for recommending birds. “That doesn’t matter whether you’re 15 years old or you’re 45 years old,” she adds.

The matches, however, aren’t always expected.

Opening Their Homes and Hearts

For 17 years, Jan Ruchlis had the reliable companionship of Milo, a 95-pound Great Dane Labrador Retriever mix that accompanied her on hikes in the Berkeley Hills area. After his death, it took her a long time before she was ready for a dog again. Then, during the pandemic, she couldn’t find the right one.

“I had been checking on many websites after that two years, and it was going nowhere,” she says. Then her daughter, a foster parent for Muttville at the time, gave her a call. “She said, Mom, I think I’ve got a dog for you.”

Enter: Heidi, a charming, affable terrier mix who clocked in at all of 15 pounds. After a particularly scary incident with a coyote, Heidi can’t quite fulfill the role of formidable hiking partner. But she’s still brought so much to Ruchlis’ life.

“Heidi has just been a godsend,” Ruchlis says. “She got me through the pandemic, and she got me through a divorce. We just hang out together a lot.”

Others have found ways to keep their favorite dogs in their lives—like Linda Wroth, an 83-year-old resident of East Richmond Heights, who spent three decades taking care of Akitas. 

“They [Akitas] just were a good fit for me,” she says. “As I became older, I became less active, and they’re not active in general. They’re just happy to have a good place to sleep.”

Two years ago, Wroth began fostering Nami, an Akita that, at 64 pounds, was a little smaller than her previous ones. Between Nami’s spinal problems and Wroth’s achy knees and hips, she says they’re well suited for each other. Choosing to foster also gave Wroth a sense of security; she says the “transition would be smooth” if she were to pass before Nami. 

Wroth feels blessed to be able to care for Nami’s medical issues, and takes a special interest in doing so. She brings Nami to regular vet, chiropractor and grooming visits. The trade-offs she’s had to make are worth it, Wroth says, to see her happier and healthier than when she came in.

A Reassuring Presence

Within days of Luna’s adoption, Luna and Brook were completely enamored with each other. As she learned to navigate her new home, Luna began following Brook around like a shadow. It might be why Brook is unfazed by some of the extra medical attention that senior dogs like Luna sometimes require.

“They are so happy to get adopted,” she says. “They may be a little more work, but it’s worth it.” Plus it’s nice, Brook says, to have a dog around the house. 

For Lenderman, it was a matter of familiarity. Before Buddy and Missy, she found herself without cats for the first time in over 40 years.

“These two ended up being the ones who filled out the job application,” she says. Now, “It’s kind of nice to have two other souls around. Hopefully they feel the same.”

Lisa Plachy
Lisa Plachy is a San Francisco-based writer who covers arts, community and culture in the Bay Area.

1 COMMENT

  1. That was a lovely article! My Grandmother had an older dog that kept her going and enjoying life for many years, she was the mayor of her neighborhood back in her town! So glad to see these shelters and rescues have programs for senior dogs (and people!)

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