Sarah Javier, president and executive director of the Animal Protective Association (APA) of Missouri Adoption Center in Brentwood, didn’t intend for people to earn nicknames through the APA’s new puppy-cuddling program for seniors. But one woman took to her role so well that a moniker instantly became obvious: “The Dog Whisperer.”
“She holds the puppies, and they just fall asleep in her arms,” Javier says with a laugh. “And she’s just as sweet as she can be.”
Javier says there are plenty more seniors who are enjoying doggie kisses at Stonecrest at Clayton View in Richmond Heights, the site of the APA’s pilot foster program for older residents. Facilities around the St. Louis area already welcome animals for visits through the nonprofit’s PetReach effort, but there’s one key difference at Stonecrest – the puppies get to stay for slumber parties that sometimes last for weeks.
“We sort of took the idea from PetReach, where we were already going into these communities, and decided to build on an existing and wonderful partnership with these senior communities,” Javier says. “And the senior fostering program was born!”
The puppies that the nonprofit brings for the Stonecrest elders to foster are only a few weeks old, and Javier says that it’s a crucial time for the younglings. By living at the facility with the seniors, the dogs learn to socialize and can build up their immune systems. Once they’re older and healthier, the APA brings them back to the home office to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped and put up for permanent adoption. To date, Stonecrest has fostered three different pairs of puppies. The APA appoints a foster coordinator and provides all of the dog food, bowls, collars and other essentials to Stonecrest, but the seniors are responsible for perhaps the most important thing: love.
“When many of the older folks enter a senior living facility, they often have to leave their pets behind, and that can be very difficult,” Javier says. “So it gives them tremendous joy to be able to interact through the foster program. Some of them have said that they interact with [the pups] every opportunity they get!”
And boy, do they interact. Javier says that residents play and cuddle with the puppies in common areas or outside, “checking out” a dog like a library book. Assistants keep track of the pairs and help with cleanup duties. Seeing the bonds that the seniors make with their new furry friends is heartwarming, and though the program just debuted in April, Javier already has plenty of stories.
“One gentleman was sharing how he always had animals growing up as a boy, and this really took him back to his childhood and made him feel young again,” Javier says. “He said that he and his wife spend every moment that they can get with the puppies.
“Another woman is not very verbal, but I know what I witnessed when she held the puppies,” Javier continues. “The joy on her face was unmistakable. You didn’t need words to see how meaningful it was and how important this was to her.”
But puppy love isn’t the only thing the seniors are getting out of the APA’s partnership with Stonecrest. Studies have shown that animals can be therapeutic for humans, bringing a healing comfort to those with difficult medical needs. Interacting also keeps residents’ joints limber and often brings reserved folks out of their rooms to socialize more frequently.
“It’s good for helping their cardiac health because it gets them up and moving, walking around with the puppy. It’s also good for their arthritis because they have the movement of their hands when they’re petting or brushing the animal,” says Javier, whose professional background includes work in pediatrics and mental health. “Moreover, it helps with their mental health and their awareness, giving them a purpose for getting up in the morning and feeling like they have someone to take care of. It’s very beneficial.”
Javier says that the residential program has been a win for the APA. At its adoption center, the nonprofit organization already has seen more than 600 puppies come through for adoption in 2017, and it receives an influx of animals during the warmer months, so building its program with Stonecrest has been helpful.
“Having fosters is always a need, and the senior living facilities were the perfect fit for that,” Javier says. “So we started the conversation, and people were very interested in doing it. It has been so wonderful.”
The APA hopes to add kittens to the senior foster mix soon, plus Javier says that once employees fine-tune details, they’ll be expanding the residential program to other facilities. “We’re currently doing orientation with two additional facilities, both of which are almost ready to receive their puppies or kittens,” Javier says.
“We’ve had another facility that just decided to adopt a dog for their residents, and that dog is very spoiled,” Javier says with a laugh. “We recently started reaching out to our other partners, and many of them are very interested in doing this. Our hope is that we can get fostering into every facility because it’s such a win-win and such a wonderful thing.”
Volunteers and foster pet parents are the lifeblood of the APA, Javier says, and that’s what will bring the nonprofit closer to her dream scenario of every adoptable animal having a safe and loving home.
“We know that we need help from the community, we need help from volunteers, and we need help from people willing to open up their homes and their hearts to foster these animals until they can get to their forever homes,” Javier says. “We also know that for the senior living residents, it brings so much purpose and joy to their lives, so we’re really helping people and pets at the same time.
“And that’s what we’re really all about – our mission is to bring people and pets together. This program is helping us achieve our mission in an innovative way. It’s meaningful.”
Animal Protective Association of Missouri, 1705 S. Hanley Road, Brentwood, 314-645-4610, apamo.org