Colorado program connects senior pets with senior citizens
CRAWFORD, Colo. (AP) — Bette Cyr reached a point in her life when she realized she knew more people who had died than were still living on this Earth.
Loneliness set in, and she found herself trying to coax a neighborhood cat that hung out behind her studio home to love her, without any luck.
Cats are fickle creatures, but Cyr kept trying. She didn’t think she was a dog person. Dogs were messy and drooly, and they rolled in stinky things and smelled each other’s rear ends. They needed humans too much.
But then, she heard about the Silver Whiskers Program run by the nearby Black Canyon Animal Sanctuary.
Debbie Faulkner, the founder of the sanctuary, started the program after discovering that old dogs and old people have a lot in common, and they benefit from each other’s companionship.
Silver Whiskers matches elderly dogs with elderly owners, includes veterinary care for the dogs and financial support for food and supplies if necessary, and Faulkner agrees to take the dogs back and care for them if something happens to the owners.
Cyr decided to give it a go, and adopted her first old dog, Ruby the miniature schnauzer.
Ruby was rescued from an animal hoarder’s house, and she only had three legs. But they got along just fine, and Cyr discovered she loved dogs after all.
They lived together for 1½ years until Ruby died, and then came Walter, another dog of the same breed, who lived for a year. And then she had Daphne for a short time, and now Cyr has Cassie and Sissy.
All these old dogs brought their own quirky personalities into Cyr’s life, something she can’t imagine not having now.
She found she was comforted by their warm, furry presence, by the sounds of their breathing at night. She loved laughing at their antics, the way Sissy perpetually has bedhead in the morning and she always looks grumpy.
A few times a day, they go to the library or the post office and get out for short walks. Cyr, 67, has met neighbors she hadn’t known before, ones who lived around the block, because the dogs got her out of the house.
“It’s opened my heart in a way that I might not have ever experienced,” she said.
Sissy is deaf, and Cassie’s tongue perpetually hangs out because there are no teeth on one side of her mouth to keep it from escaping. But no one minds, and Cyr just likes lavishing love on them as they nap on her settee in a sunny spot.
“My part’s the easy part. I just have to love them,” she said.
She and the dogs have similar needs, and Cyr said Faulker did a great job matching them.
“They just need some peace and quiet and safety and love,” she said. “It’s such an important thing, in my mind, that these guys are not disposed of, discarded.”
She said the improvement in her quality of life since she adopted the dogs is immeasurable, and it’s wonderful to have another creature who needs her.
“I hadn’t realized I was lonely until I wasn’t lonely,” she said.
The program’s beginnings date back to 2011, when a cancer patient’s caretakers contacted Faulkner and asked if they could borrow a dog. Their patient, Ken, was in hospice care and wasn’t expected to live long.
Ken’s own dog had died and he refused to take his medication, he had no family and they just wanted a dog as a loaner to improve his quality of life.
Faulkner brought him Hank, a lab-basset mix who was 8 years old at the time. Faulkner immediately saw a change in Ken, who she described as having a “somewhat curmudgeonly” personality.
“He was a whole different man all of a sudden,” she said, remembering that Ken’s face glowed with a grin and he smiled when he first saw Hank.
The two were instant friends, and when Ken moved into the San Juan Living Center in Montrose, he brought Hank, who slept on his bed and also provided companionship for the other residents.
Ken ended up living for two years after the dog entered his life, much longer than anyone expected. And when he died, Hank was there, lying on his bed with his paw on Ken’s arm.
Faulkner took Hank back and later placed him with a Fruita woman who is now 94 years old.
The experience with Hank and Ken led Faulkner to form Silver Whiskers, which has a goal of matching mature animals with mature owners who might not otherwise adopt a pet for financial reasons or concerns about how long they will live.
Some of the animals in the program were rescued from puppy mills and spent their lives confined. Others had owners who died. Some were dumped in rural areas and brought to the sanctuary.
After the adoptions, in some cases, it’s hard to tell who rescued who.
In one case, a 75-year-old woman with a walker adopted a little Westie, and Faulkner was concerned that the new owner wouldn’t be able to get out and walk the dog as much as needed.
Faulkner checked up on them later and found the woman had ditched the walker — she had been getting so much exercise with the dog, she no longer needed it.
“It gave her a reason to get up every day,” Faulkner said.
She often receives letters from doctors asking for companion animals for their patients, citing the need for a pet to improve their quality of life.
Most of the 30 clients Faulkner currently has in the Silver Whiskers program prefer older dogs for a lot of reasons.
They don’t want to adopt puppies because they are a lot of work, they need a house-trained pet, and the prospect of adopting a dog that might live 12 or 15 years seems like a long-term commitment for an elderly person who might not live that long.
The fear of outliving a pet or not being able to care for it if something happens is one of the hurdles Faulkner overcomes for elderly clients who want to adopt through the Silver Whiskers program.
She agrees to take the animals and board them for free if the owner is hospitalized or unable to care for their pet.
She has placed some dogs multiple times after the first owner died.
She’ll also take animals back if a client’s living situation changes. Since 90 percent of her clients rent their homes, they sometimes have issues with keeping animals if they need to downsize or move to assisted living that doesn’t allow pets.
The fear of outliving a dog was the main reason Thelma and Jim Humphrey of Clifton were hesitant about getting another pet after their dachshund, Beth, died recently.
He is 84 and she is 83, and at first, they said they wouldn’t do it again.
But after always having dogs, their home felt empty without one.
Two weeks after Beth died, they visited the sanctuary and, while they were visiting with Faulkner in her office, a small 8-year-old Chihuahua mix, Joy, chose them.
“She just came over the desk and ended up in Jim’s lap,” Thelma said.
This was just a few weeks ago, and so far, Joy has fit in just right. She’s a sweet little dog and they love her, and the couple is glad they adopted her after she was at the sanctuary for six years. It’s nice to be able to give her a home with creature comforts, and they want to spoil her a little bit as she ages.
“Everybody likes puppies,” Jim said. “But older dogs are just kind of like older people, they’re not paid attention to.”
For Faulkner, it’s about improving the quality of life for people and animals, and she plans to expand the program in the Grand Junction area as resources allow.
It’s about companionship, love and caring, and she wants to help as many people and animals as possible.
For Cyr, she’s eternally grateful to Faulkner for changing her life, her heart and her mind about dogs, the companions she never imagined would mean so much to her.
“I can’t imagine having gone through life without knowing dogs,” she said.