by Gabrielle L. Wheeler
Joan sits in a green armchair, the television blaring in her small studio apartment at St. Mark’s Terrace in Penn Yan. She tells me long stories about the cats she had to give up when she came to live at this assisted living facility. That is, all but one: Pretty Girl, a lovely white female with orange tiger stripes over one ear and beautiful green eyes.
Joan would not be able to have Pretty Girl if it weren’t for Pet Partner Connections. The nonprofit organization helps disabled, elderly, and homebound clients in Yates County keep their pets at home. As we chat, executive director and co-founder Michael Bennett disappears to scoop cat litter and do a visual check on Pretty Girl. When he’s done, he chats with Joan and pats a box full of cans to let her know she has enough cat food for the next few weeks.
“All of our elderly clients are disabled in one way or another. Some of them more so than others. Some of our clients are not elderly but disabled,” Michael explains. “There are people who live in their own home or in the nursing home who have animals. They have to give them up because they might not be able to bend over and scoop the litter box anymore or trim their dog’s nails.”
That is where Pet Partner Connections comes in. The organization collects donations of pet food and litter, and raises funds so volunteers can go to the homes and do what their clients can no longer. They help people keep their pets.
A simple search on petfinder.com shows that there are hundreds of thousands of pets available for adoption across the country at any given moment. What happens to the owners who love their pet but are unable to properly care for it due to old age? Is aging a legitimate reason for having to give up a fur baby? Multiple studies indicate that having pets is good for us, especially for the elderly, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Pets make us happy and offer companionship. Some research shows that pets may help us combat deteriorating problems that come with age, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.
After working at a shelter and noticing how many pets were surrendered merely because their elderly or disabled owners were unable to care for them, Michael decided to do something. Already established with his pet therapy dog and cat, he partnered with his mother Onda Bennett to start Pet Partner Connections in 2015. “There was no assistance for these people,” Michael explains. “It’s really important to help them to keep these animals rather than giving them to the shelter.”
A Multi-Tiered Impact
The main focus of Pet Partner Connections is to provide home-visit services for clients. Starting out with two, they now fluctuate between 30 and 40 clients at any given time. One of their newest programs is a sponsorship, which can fund food, litter, nail trimming, grooming, and even veterinary services for a client’s pet.
In addition to home visits, Michael and Onda have continued to visit nursing homes with their therapy pets – a practice they also consider central to their mission. It’s a two-tiered approach: the organization pays monthly visits to nursing homes in Penn Yan, and also partners with the occupational therapy honors program at Keuka College for a craft time at St. Mark’s Terrace. “The nursing home and college students make our crafts, dog toys and that kind of thing, and then we sell them and use that to buy the food to give to people who are in need,” Onda explained to a donor at a fundraiser at the Penn Yan Public Library.
Speaking of giving away food to people who are in need, the organization also provides supplies at local food pantries. Donated items including pet food, cat litter, pet treats and toys made at craft times are given to those who access the food pantries. Community members in need can also apply for assistance or call to speak with Michael or Onda personally. “We help a dozen or so clients at any given time. It’s temporary – they are people who have lost their jobs, or were injured on the job, or they are going through a divorce,” says Michael. “We help these folks until they get back on their feet.”
With the help of therapy pets, Bennie and Red the Wobbly Cat, Pet Partner Connections is touching the lives of Yates County residents like Joan. “Because we wanted to be involved and continue to be involved, we said we were going to do it. So, we did,” Michael concludes.
To learn more, visit Pet Partner Connections online at ppcny.org or look for it on Facebook.