A border collie/Aussie mix named Chase gives Christine Glasgow a warm and fuzzy wakeup greeting every day.
“The first thing I say is, ‘Good morning, Chase,’” said Glasgow, a widow who lives at Blair Place. “He leaps up to my shoulder and we snuggle.
“I always say, ‘This is the best part of my day right here,’ and he just rolls over on his little back. That’s our morning routine every day.”
Most pet owners will tell you they’re smitten with their animals, and Jackson Hole’s older residents are no exception. Seniors find great joy in pampering their cats and dogs, many of which, like Chase, are rescues. But seniors also find that their four-footed family members enhance their health and well-being.
“They say it’s good for your blood pressure to have somebody sitting in your lap so you can pet them,” cat owner Karen Swaim said.
A growing body of research backs her up on that point and more. Studies show that having a pet eases stress, reduces heart rate, encourages exercise, promotes social interaction and makes older folks feel less isolated.
“I really encourage pets,” said Dr. Martha Stearn, an internist and cognitive health specialist with St. John’s Medical Center’s Physician Practices.
One of the main reasons, she said, is they get people moving.
“There’s nothing like a dog looking at you with doleful eyes waiting for his walk,” Stearn said.
The doctor knows from experience: She has a golden retriever named Apollo. And it’s the same for Glasgow and her buddy Chase.
“He gets me out walking 45 minutes to an hour every day,” Glasgow said. “He gets me out every single day, rain, shine or snow.”
As for mental and emotional well-being, Stearn sees “huge, huge” benefits for her patients. Being with an animal stimulates the brain, a big help for people with dementia or other cognitive impairments, she said. And it’s good to feel needed and loved.
“Their small dogs are keeping them happy, giving them a desire to live,” Stearn said of some patients. “It’s very helpful for depression.”
At a lunch table at the Senior Center of Jackson Hole this past spring, several seniors talked about their affection for the fur faces in their lives.
T.R. Shelby loves driving around with Rusty, his Australian sheepdog.
“He’s just a real friendly dog,” Shelby said. “He’s a very good companion.”
Rusty’s antics amuse him. One time the dog slipped out of the vehicle while his owner was talking to a friend. When Shelby finally found him he had made friends with a garbage collector.
“There’s Rusty sitting up in the truck,” Shelby said.
Another time Rusty discovered a pair of abandoned boots near a dumpster and chewed on them — boots that turned out to have belonged to Dick Cheney.
“That’s the only bad thing he’s done,” Shelby said.
Swaim, who lives with a 20-pound male cat named Rocky and an 8-pound female cat named Sissy, said they spur her to get a move on.
“They make you get out of bed even on those days when you don’t give a [darn],” she said. “You have to get up to take care of them.”
Sissy, she said, “is my comfort.” Rocky is more of a rascal, always getting underfoot to “guide” her, she said.
In the home Cindy Knight shares with her sister the animals outnumber the humans. There’s a border collie named Bennie and a trio of cats: Annie, Sasha and Sylvie. The sisters love their pets so much they took them along on an RV vacation down South.
“They’re cuddly,” Knight said.
In addition to cuddles the dog guarantees the women get some exercise.
“Bennie loves hikes, so he encourages us to get out,” Knight said. She finds that being in nature is enhanced by the presence of a dog. “You appreciate it though their eyes,” she said.
Cheryl Schaffer, who lives with her rescue Chihuahua, Tikibell, joked that she’s glad no one has put a tape recorder in her home.
“She’s good company,” Schaffer said. “I talk to her all the time.”
Many people of all ages sense an unconditional acceptance from their animals, and Schaffer alluded to that feeling.
“Unlike a child or husband or friend they love you just because they want to,” she said.
There’s a point at which owning a pet might not be the best option for a senior citizen who enjoys canine or feline companionship.
“It’s hard to come up with an age cutoff,” Stearn said. “Some people are a very young 86, and some people are a very old 72.”
More pertinent, she said, is the state of an individual’s health. Balance, for example, can be a problem.
“Some of the bigger dogs jump on people and knock them over,” she said. “Older people are more susceptible to falls.”
Seniors’ thinner skin means they are prone to serious skin infections, like cellulitis, from cat scratches and puppy bites. It’s best that a cat’s nails be trimmed well. As for dogs, Stearn prefers to see people take in a small adult who knows his manners and has mellowed out rather than a rambunctious 8-week-old with everything to learn.
“Older people should consider adopting an already trained rescue dog,” she said.
Seniors who have their heart set on a purebred can take in a grown-up dog from a breed-specific rescue organization. And, of course, shelters are full of dogs needing homes.
Neither the Jackson/Teton County Animal Shelter nor the Animal Adoption Center sets a formal upper age limit for potential pet parents.
“There’s a huge benefit to having older people have animals around them, so we love to make that happen,” said Amanda Penn, general manager of the Adoption Center.
The right match
The Adoption Center has just launched Seniors for Seniors, a program that homes well-seasoned cats and dogs — typically 7 years and older — with people 65 and up. The shelter’s “expert matchmakers” will help seniors find a pet that fits their lifestyle and housing situation at a reduced rate of $50 for dogs and $15 for cats.
“The quiet and doting home of a senior citizen is the perfect match for an older animal looking for a new home,” a press release said. “Senior animals are often gentler, calmer companions, and often are already trained.
Many times, Penn said, cats in particular are a great option for older adopters.
“You don’t have to walk them every day,” she said. “They’re a great companion, and you don’t have to put quite as much effort into them.”
The Seniors for Seniors program is largely intended to ensure that animals with some age on them find families. They are often overlooked.
Older cats, in particular, “tend to sit around for a long time,” Penn said.
On a case-by-case basis, when an elderly person wants to adopt a pet the Adoption Center will want to find out if he or she has a family member or someone else to check on the animal and take it on if the adopter can no longer care of it.
“We look for solid support systems,” Penn said.
Discussing contingency plans is awkward but necessary, and senior adopters seem to understand why.
“Most of the time they kind of realize too that that’s the situation,” Penn said. “It’s realizing this animal could live for 15 years: What’s the plan in the long term?
“It’s hard to tell someone no,” she said. “For the most part we try to set up something else where they can come in and walk a dog or come in a pet a cat and still have that interaction.”
Teton County Pet Partners also offers opportunities to be close to animals without living with them. Dog-and-people teams regularly visit Legacy Lodge Jackson Hole, an assisted and independent living facility in Rafter J.
“Part of our mission is to put smiles on seniors’ faces,” said Kelly Chadwick, program director for the local Pet Partners.
In addition to dogs, Pet Partners is adding a couple of cats named Bandit and Lazarus.
“We’re very excited,” Chadwick said. “Cats are great about curling up on somebody’s lap. These two in particular are very chill and want to be loved.”
Nikki Escalada, director of life enrichment at Legacy, said the visiting dogs are a hit with seniors living there. Though residents are allowed to have their own pets, not everyone is in a position to take care of one or wants to.
A Pet Partners visit “is something they can count on every week,” Escalada said. “They get to know the dogs and the owners. People who wouldn’t [normally] do a lot of activities will come.”
She’s looking forward to seeing how residents welcome the Pet Partners cats.
“Not everybody is a dog person. ... It’s nice to have the difference.”
Whether pets are live-in companions or welcome visitors, they are important to seniors. Ask Glasgow about Chase.
“He just makes me laugh every single day,” Glasgow said.
“I thank Jesus every single night for him when I go to bed,” she said. “He knew exactly what I needed.” ￼