SCARBOROUGH — Ruth Mortimer doesn’t know what she’d do without her 14-year-old Maine coon cat, Drake.
She’s had Drake for 13 years, after adopting him from the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland when she moved from New York to retire in Maine. She stopped in regularly for several weeks, waiting for a Maine coon and finally, one showed up.
Although at first she didn’t like his name – Drake is named for being colored like a duck, Mortimer said – he wouldn’t respond to anything else. She took him home that day.
“He’s a great comfort to me,” Mortimer said. “Before I got him, I had blood pressure problems. All I have to do is reach out my hand and he’s right there. Now, my blood pressure stays very normal all the time.”
So when Drake lost his appetite and started loosing his long hair last year, Mortimer started to worry. She’s 84, and lives on income from Social Security and the pension her husband left her when he died.
Luckily, she had previously worked with the Southern Maine Agency on Aging in Scarborough, which had helped her find money to pay for help around her house. Mortimer was able to bring Drake in for the medical care he needed, thanks to the agency’s Best Friends Fund, which helps seniors take care of their companion pets.
The program started in January 2010 and has since helped about 19 seniors in Cumberland and York counties get veterinary attention for their pets.
It all started when Scarborough resident Eddie Woodin contacted SMAA’s foundation relations manager, Susan DeWitt Wilder. Woodin was already involved in distributing free birdseed through SMAA to seniors so they could watch birds at their homes. He asked Wilder how he could help more.
So Wilder looked into it. She said SMAA’s social workers told her that many senior citizens were losing their pets because they couldn’t afford to pay for the animals’ medical care. Some social workers had even taken pets from their clients to care for them, she said.
“It turns out, older people have older pets,” Wilder said. “Veterinary care is very expensive and there aren’t many resources for these residents when their pets get sick.”
So Woodin donated a $2,500 challenge grant to establish the Best Friends Fund, and SMAA has since raised more than $6,000 to help seniors and their companion pets.
Eligible seniors – those at least 60 years old, residents of York or Cumberland counties, who meet SMAA income eligibility guidelines – can ask for help bringing their dogs or cats to the vet. The agency negotiates a price with the veterinarian and pays the bill.
A sick pet can be exceedingly stressful for seniors for whom the animal is their only source of daily companionship, Wilder said, especially if the senior is facing hard times because of financial worries or health concerns.
“It can help them feel less alone, less afraid,” she said.
Though the science is far from conclusive, the National Institutes of Health says there is some evidence that pets help people’s cardiovascular health.
According to a NIH article from Febrary 2009: “One NIH-funded study looked at 421 adults who’d suffered heart attacks. A year later, the scientists found, dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
“Another study looked at 240 married couples. Those who owned a pet were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than those without pets. Pet owners also seemed to have milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend.”
But it’s not the data that bonds Mortimer and her cat. It’s the little everyday things.
Mortimer said Drake is much better now, and is back to being his old self. His hair has grown back and he eats like he used to. He waits for her at the door when she comes home from running errands, and cuddles up to her when she goes to bed.
“As long as I’ve got my kitty,” she said, “I’ll be alright.”
Corrected on Friday, Sept. 2, 2011.