Lifesaving Love

At the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, older Mainers connect with animals, and everyone benefits.

Oh, the dogs of my life. There have been a few: Zander, Tuck, Ginger, Schooner, Dory, and now Nahlah, to name just some. There were cats too: Mittens, Freckles, Annie, Moose, Tara, Oliver, Abigail Short-Tail, and Tahu. There was even Aphrodite the guinea pig, Yurtle and Myrtle the turtles, and some mice that escaped to the basement of our home where their legions of offspring are probably still scampering around the early 1700s stone foundation. I grew up with them all and learned how to take responsibility for their well-being. (Well, except for the mice. They were on their own.) I didn’t realize at the time that every one of them had something to teach me. I witnessed their coming into my life, and their going out, and I learned just how the cycle of living and dying works. I came to understand lifetimes, and as if each of them knew that their tenure was shorter than mine, they poured their devotion all over me like hot fudge on ice cream. I loved them, they loved me back. Now I’m older—in fact, I’m in the second half of life, say the AARP and my bum knee. I have never been without a dog or a cat, or two, and I can’t imagine my life without at least one of them, even as the decades march on.

According to the American Humane Society (AHS), approximately 8 million animals end up in shelters each year. And each year, the AHS claims 3.7 million of them are euthanized. Not so much in Maine, according to the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland (ARLGP), which took in just under 4,600 animals in 2018 and placed all but 198, or 97.7 percent, as of December 31. What few animals were euthanized were due to public safety reasons or medical conditions that impacted quality of life, a determination that Executive Director Patsy Murphy says is always made with the utmost care and compassion. At its 25,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in Westbrook, the focus is on saving lives. “We are not a dumping ground for unwanted animals,” says Murphy. Instead she speaks about the mission of the organization, which is noticeably plastered all over the website, walls, and the literature available at the front desk: “Joy, compassion, empathy, love. Saving lives.”

Much of the work it takes to support this critical mission is carried out by a committed group of older volunteers, a phenomenon that Murphy attributes to a growing retiree community increasingly more concerned with staying active and engaged for health reasons, as well as committed to getting their “animal time” as an alternative to having pets at home. Of the 707 volunteers who currently help at the shelter, 471 come on a weekly basis and give two or more hours of their time each week. Nearly 220 of those volunteers are 55 and older, the oldest being 83.

According to Sue Baker, 61 (one of the ARLGP volunteers who makes the trip to Boston’s Logan International Airport every Tuesday night to meet dogs coming in from Puerto Rico and shelters around the country), the older volunteers generally have an evolved sense of responsibility to the animals that arrive with no understanding of what their future holds. Whether it is doing laundry together for the facility, as one married couple does, or taking part in the League’s “R and R” sessions to help soothe stressed animals, or walking them on the adjacent miles of Portland Trails, this particular group of volunteers is all in. The work isn’t just about taking in an unwanted or abandoned animal. “It’s a relationship. A partnership,” Baker says. When an animal arrives at the shelter, that reciprocal partnership begins. And the benefits are astoundingly clear to humans and animals alike.

A February 2018 study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reveals several benefits for the older set who share their time with a pet. Walking a dog increases the likelihood for social interaction, leading to more conversations and connections, and less isolation; owning a pet can contribute to improved heart health and lower blood pressure, says the report. Another study cites the finding that pet owners have a higher survival rate after a heart attack, increasing from 71 to 97 percent. Psychiatrist Dr. Greg Fricchione, director of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston, comments that love and companionship are the best benefits attributed to owning a pet. “We do best medically and emotionally when we feel securely attached to another, because we’re mammals and that’s the way we’ve evolved,” writes Dr. Fricchione in the Harvard Health Letter publication from Harvard Medical School. But he also cites a study that suggests the real physiological effects of pet companionship. In particular, he points out a Japanese study published in the journal Science, which revealed that staring into the eyes of a dog can raise a person’s levels of oxytocin (the body’s natural feel-good chemical).

Maybe that is part of the reason why so many mature volunteers, like Baker, find their way to the ARLGP. More likely it is because these are people who, like me, love animals and likely have loved them all their life. “After people retire it seems important that they stay busy, have structure in their schedule, and keep their minds active, and this keeps them feeling younger and needed,” says Baker. For others, she notes that coming to the ARLGP to spend a few hours a week is simply about getting their animal fix. Here they find a new family of pets to shower with affection. In return they are doing more for their own health than the best health club in town.

The awareness that pet ownership is not a one-way relationship is bringing attention to the benefits that animals bring to an entire demographic of seniors. At least it is in the ARLGP’s universe. Baker believes that many older Mainers, while they would like to adopt a pet to bring home, more commonly harbor the notion that doing so at 75 or 80 years old isn’t a possibility. It’s risky; it requires too much physical stamina; it is cost prohibitive. But with careful screening and education and ongoing support from the staff and volunteers at the ARLGP, Baker adds, many will end up adopting an older dog, recognizing the poignant benefits of aging together.

Adoption isn’t the only way to connect pet-loving seniors and animals in healthy ways. Bringing pets to visit older populations in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, Alzheimer’s units, and even to shut ins has been a resoundingly positive experience, says Jane Margesson of AARP Maine, remembering her own visits to her father-in-law with her dog, Mika. “She was the only thing that could make him smile,” Margesson says. “Being next to Mika was an enormous comfort and clearly life-affirming.” Bangor resident Carol Higgins Taylor once spearheaded an initiative to deliver pet food along with meals to housebound seniors through the Eastern Area Association on Aging. When she and her partner, Juanita, a health care worker, no longer delivered car loads of pet food across three counties in northern Maine, they brought their Maltese-Shih Tzu mix, Duffy, to the facility where Juanita worked. “The little white dog,” as he came to be known, regularly made his rounds, cheering up residents and unlocking inspiring recollections of their own loved pets from long ago.

This outreach to individuals is becoming a significant part of shelter work, and the ARLGP is poised to lead the way. Humane education classes are conducted in their classrooms equipped to teach school children about caring for animals; veterinary staff perform required health screenings on intake of new animals and also provide low-cost spay–neuter, vaccination, and microchipping clinics in an onsite facility. Foster families provide temporary homes to kittens, puppies, and older dogs until a permanent home can be found. With her army of experienced volunteers and a dedicated staff, Murphy hopes to help the smaller shelters around the state and thereby build and support the pet-loving community. Carole Wolff, one of four veterinarians who contributes time to the ARLGP and helps with animal wellness checks to augment the two part-time veterinarians on staff, says that Murphy sets the gold standard for shelters everywhere. “She’s a game changer,” says Wolff.

As a leading shelter in the United States, the ARLGP is dedicated to saving animals from all over the country and from at least six different countries. In 2017, for example (only a year after moving into its new space), ARLGP partnered with more than 60 organizations to rescue more than 2,000 pets from natural disasters and shelters that could no longer accommodate them. Given the volume of work, it is no surprise to hear both Murphy and Baker comment on how the ARLGP relies heavily on its volunteer force. It’s also plain to see that the wisdom of experience might be just the thing to reinforce the value of a life, furry or otherwise. There is much to be learned from a partnership between a human who has a lot of tried and true love to give and an animal who has never known a home.

One such relationship developed this past February. Nancy Gleason, 77, and her husband Paul, 79, made the trip from Great Diamond Island to visit with Rosco, a small mixed-breed rescued from Puerto Rico and relocated to the Portland shelter. The Gleasons had lost a dog just before Christmas and wondered if they were too old to bring home another. After months of treatment, Roscowas ready for a home. And Nancy and Paul were ready for a new dog. “People are private on an island,” says Nancy. “But there are certain things that are social. One is being outside with the dogs. What the heck would I do when everyone is out there with their dogs?” Of course they needed another dog. Finding an older one to keep them company was the goal.

So, after several introductions and discussions with the staff at ARLGP to assess whether they were a good fit (something the staff does with every adoption), Rosco, an island dog from Puerto Rico who was found barely surviving in the brush behind a small church, rode home by ferry to Great Diamond Island in Casco Bay, tucked between Nancy and Paul. How is Rosco doing? “He’s got it all figured out,” says Nancy.

He has found a favorite spot sitting atop the living room couch in front of the window where he can see who is coming and going. His favorite pastime (so far) is chasing after the wild turkeys that frequent the field near their house, and he has a special hankering for playing with Nancy’s knitting as well as her glasses, which he usually finds by jumping up on the coffee table. “People who don’t have dogs or animals have something all crunched inside of them,” says Nancy. “Without Rosco, what would I do?” She pauses, then says in an almost whisper, “This dog is a gift; I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”

If ever there was testament to the good that can be shared between pets and people of a certain age, this is it. Our phone conversation was interrupted by Nancy’s loud peals of laughter—and Paul’s in the background—while she tried to paint the picture of Rosco perched on the top of the couch, his floppy-eared stuffed bunny hanging from his mouth, ears cocked and looking straight into Nancy’s eyes. Happy dog. Happy humans.