Baby Boomers — those born in the late 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s — make up one-third of the U.S. population. Every nine seconds an American Baby Boomer crosses the over-65 threshold.
However, despite longer life expectancies than their parents, Boomers face higher rates of chronic diseases: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol.
Five in every 100 Boomers are housebound and live out their last years without a spouse, family members, friends, or pets. These isolated seniors, according to a study from the University of Chicago, are at an increased risk for dementia and rapid cognitive decline. They also experience chronic depression and higher systolic blood pressures.
Caregiver Canines, a New Jersey nonprofit, is putting the “golden” back in the golden years. The organization matches seniors with their 33 therapy dogs. “All of the people that we help don’t drive anymore. They’re pretty socially isolated …[and] dependent, so this just gives them a little link to the outside world,” executive director and volunteer Lynette Whiteman says. Caregiver Canines “is different from a hospital [therapy dog program, where] you walk through and see a lot of people. You go from room to room, floor to floor. Some of our matches are … two to three years long and [45 minutes] every week.”
Danielle Malle, part-time staffer and program coordinator, ensures that each canine volunteer and handler completes basic obedience, attends a rigorous eight-week therapy dog course, and aces a hands-on test. All handlers undergo full criminal background checks, and Caregiver Canines gets supplemental insurance for them.
After completing a phone interview and home visit, Malle starts the match-making process, pairing seniors with “literally … every type of dog … Dobermans, Pit Bulls, Shih Tzus.” After the first visit, the elderly individuals basically … adopt the dog. They start buying treats and water bowls. The dog gets really comfortable there,” Whiteman said. The seniors, dog handlers, and dogs “get to be very, very close. [They] sort of get to be extended family members.”
Mary Lou and her husband, Dennis, forged that kind of bond with Biscotti, a mixed-breed dog. “Mary Lou had suffered a number of strokes. She was very, very sedentary. She sat in a chair all day.” So Dennis reached out to Caregiver Canines. He wasn’t sure whether Mary Lou would take to a dog, but he was willing to try everything to bring her joy.
Whiteman slowly introduced Biscotti. “It took them a little while to warm up” to each other, she recalls, but eventually, Mary Lou and Biscotti became best girlfriends, spending holidays and visits snuggled up together on the couch. “[Then] one day, Mary Lou … got so excited [that Biscotti was coming to see her that she] got up and walked to the door!” Whiteman said.
“It’s stuff like that that makes all of the difference,” she said. After all, Whiteman has witnessed amazing turnarounds more than once. She recalls how she and Malke, her Labradoodle, were matched with Joe, a man suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, who had always had dogs.
“He absolutely loved dogs,” Whiteman said. “He was uncommunicative. He was … a little bit stubborn, and we went over to visit with [8-year-old] Malke, and he bent over and started saying, ‘My baby, my baby!'” Maria, his wife and caretaker, hadn’t heard his voice in six months and began to sob uncontrollably.
Joe begged to take Malke for a walk. “We were able to get him outside. So, that was a very sweet match,” Whiteman remembered.
Then there’s Sandra, 92, who raised Dobermans her whole life. “She can’t have a dog anymore because she was in the hospital,” Whiteman says. “[She doesn’t have] family around here.” Sandra was paired with Tracy and her Greyhound, Van. “She basically says that [their] visits changed her life … it gave her somebody to bond with and gave her somebody to be friends with.”
Sandra even donated to the group in honor of her volunteer’s birthday. “Some people are really blessed [by the program] and have gifted [in] their wills to us,” Whiteman adds.
Caregiver Canines is also funded by grants provided by private foundations. “We do our fundraisers. Sometimes we have fundraisers specific to Caregiver Canines like Caregiver Variety Show, where we had a fashion show with the therapy dogs,” Whiteman said. The organization also holds a “very competitive” doggie mayor contest with candidates from the therapy dog program. “For about a month, they heavily campaign. They’re very creative on their Facebook pages. They go to dog fairs and hand out flyers. People vote for them online.” The current mayor, Thomas Keeler, swore in Josie — the third pet mayor — who attends events all over Toms River, New Jersey. Renowned British dog trainer Victoria Stilwell has also announced the winner and other doggie council members on her Wild About Pets radio show.
Partnering with the National Volunteer Caregiving Network, Caregiver Canines has chapters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. “There are five more sites coming on board [this year],” Whiteman said.