How Meals on Wheels Central Texas is uniting seniors with forever furry friends

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The old saying goes that a dog is a man’s best friend. But what happens when a person becomes homebound and is unable to afford care for their pets?

For more than a decade, Meals on Wheels Central Texas has worked to unite Central Texas senior citizens with their furry friends through its program PALS, or Pets Assisting the Lives of Seniors. The initiative provides pet food and veterinary care assistance each month to homebound seniors or those unable to afford the total costs of caring for a pet.

Its mission is data-driven: A Meals on Wheels America study released in June reported 97% of recipients said owning a pet helped make them feel less lonely. Of those surveyed, 29% said they had foregone personal medical care to provide adequate veterinary treatment for their pets.

Central Texas seniors shouldn’t have to choose between their own medical health and carrying for their pets, said Joel Hess, PALS program manager at Meals on Wheels Central Texas. This stress on older Central Texans has become all the more prominent during the coronavirus pandemic, as financial strains and social isolation have impacted already vulnerable, homebound communities.

“I think all of us have experienced the impact of COVID on our social isolation and our ability to interact with other people…having pets in the home with these clients has really helped them a lot,” he said. “I think we have had more clients that are trying to come on and I think that’s just been part of having more clients in need of Meals on Wheels during COVID. And then finding out that there is a program like ours, they’ve been trying to take advantage of that, which is wonderful.”

Each month, PALS volunteers deliver dog and cat food, along with supplies, directly to senior citizens. PALS also partners with local nonprofits Emancipet and the Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation to provide annual veterinary care to pets, including exams, vaccinations and certain medical procedures.

“It’s a win-win for animals and for people by helping keep more pets in people’s homes with them.”

JOEL HESS, PALS PROGRAM MANAGER, MEALS ON WHEELS CENTRAL TEXAS

Social isolation can manifest itself in a host of other health problems, including heart disease, arthritis, Type II diabetes and mental health concerns, Hess said. Having a pet to care for creates companionship, leading to a more active lifestyle and decreased risks of depression or anxiety, he added.

“It’s a win-win for animals and for people by helping keep more pets in people’s homes with them,” he said.

It can even be lifesaving; one Meals on Wheel client, Eva, credits her dog Maisie with detecting her cancer diagnosis.

“Maisie was crawling up on her and kind of pressing into her neck and whining, and [Eva] had noticed after that, that she kind of had a little bit of pain there. So she went to her doctor, talked to her doctor about it, they ended up running some tests and ended up diagnosing her with cancer. And so she ended up going and getting that taken care of,” Hess said.

PALS provides food and veterinary care for approximately 570 pets each month in the Central Texas region, Hess said. Within the past year, roughly 560 pets have received their annual exams, vaccinations and surgeries through PALS program funding.

To receive assistance from PALS, a pet owner must meet the following criteria:

  • You must be a registered client receiving at-home meal delivery services through Meals on Wheels Central Texas
  • Pet services are limited to dogs and cats only
  • Pets must be spayed/neutered already, or pet owners must agree to spaying/neutering their pet

For those interested in assisting the PALS program, Hess said volunteers and donations are always accepted. Volunteers help transport animals to vet appointments or transfer food and pet supplies on selected routes. Meals on Wheels Central Texas accepts unopened pet food and new or gently used bedding, collars, pet toys and other supplies.

“There are people who…want to be there, and they want to offer compassion and empathy,” he said. “And they want to help people and animals be in a better situation than they were before, and so it’s just really a heartwarming thing to see.”

For more information on the PALS program or to learn more about its volunteer and donation efforts, click here.

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