Cuddly Companions: Pets for Seniors

The minute Susan Kurowski’s husband woke up after heart valve-replacement surgery four years ago, he looked at his wife and asked, “How’s the puppy?” When she came back the next day and the day after, it was the same question. The puppy, a stray that one of Kurowski’s friends had found, gave her husband the motivation to get out of the hospital in three days. To this day, they’re inseparable. “To feel that unconditional love is really important for someone’s well-being,” says Kurowski. 

For the past 15 years, Kurowski has been helping spread that unconditional love to the elderly as executive director of Pets for the Elderly Foundation. A nonprofit based in Cleveland, the foundation works with animal shelters across the Unites States to subsidize pet-adoption fees for people over age 60, who often struggle with feelings of isolation and apathy—the kinds of feelings a pet can counter. Founder Avrum Katz started the group in 1992 after he was diagnosed with leukemia. “He was a single man in his 70s at the time, and he knew how important his dog was to him and how much it was all tied to his mental health,” says Kurowski, who’d worked as a bookkeeper for Katz before he started the charity. Katz wanted to make it easier for older adults to adopt pets and reap the mental and physical benefits of pet ownership. With funding from various foundations, grants, and individual donors, PFE is now a national organization covering a portion of the costs associated with pet adoption—including adoption fees, veterinary exams, and spayneuter surgeries—at participating animal shelters. The foundation works with 52 shelters in 34 states and has assisted nearly 100,000 seniors with adoption since it began. 

“We get so many heartwarming notes from the people we help,” Kurowski says. “One of my favorites was from a 72-year-old woman who wrote: ‘Thank you for the discount on my dog. She has taught me to laugh and play again.’ ” Last October, PFE expanded to include financial aid for surgeries, checkups, and other services at participating shelters. Kurowski’s next goal: Find a partner shelter in every state. “We can’t be everything to everybody, but I like to think we make a difference,” she says. “Everyone needs someone to talk to. The AARP says we can talk to a smart speaker to combat loneliness, but I have a dog that answers!”

This article originally appeared in our Winter/Spring 2021 issue. Get the magazine here.

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