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Senior Citizens & Pets: The Hidden Links

By Katina Antoniades

May is national Older Americans Month--and a good opportunity to explore how your organization can help the seniors in your community during the coming year

Senior citizens, whether of the two-legged or four-legged variety, are too often among society's forgotten. But animal protection organizations have long recognized the need to help the aging--through "senior pets for senior people" programs, animal-assisted therapy visits, or services that deliver meals on wheels to pets of elderly guardians.

This May, a new initiative developed in partnership with the federal government will provide further opportunities for exploring the relationship between animals and the elderly. For the first time in its four decades of existence, Older Americans Month will include a pets component; the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Aging, which coordinates the special month, is including companion animal-related materials in its promotional kits.

Hundreds of aging-focused agencies nationwide will receive the kits and, along with them, an Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) article that delves into both sides of the story--the bond between seniors and their pets as well as the link between elder abuse and animal cruelty. As the article explains, elder abuse can take many forms, including physical and sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, and financial or material exploitation. Elder abuse and self-neglect are thought to be drastically underreported, but they are known to affect hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Relatives are usually the ones responsible for the acts of abuse.

"In more than two-thirds of domestic elder abuse cases, the perpetrators are family members--frequently the children or grandchildren of the elderly victim--who may neglect or abuse an elder's pet as a form of control or retaliation, out of frustration over their caretaking responsibilities, or as a way to extract financial assets from the victim," says Virginia M. Prevas, manager of The HSUS's First Strike campaign, which encourages the formation of community-wide coalitions to combat both animal cruelty and human violence.

Because elder abuse and animal cruelty often appear in tandem, animal organizations can play a role in fighting mistreatment of older people--and their pets, Assistant Secretary for Aging Josefina Carbonell suggested in her press release on Older Americans Month. "The animal protection network performs a unique and valuable role as sentinels, looking out for the safety of older people and their pets," she said. "They can make a significant difference in our communities across the country where they work in collaboration with our aging and adult protective services programs."

Older Americans Month information can be found at

The seeds of such a partnership have already been sown in at least one state; attendance at a First Strike workshop inspired a Wisconsin official to work with The HSUS to develop a training manual for adult protective services workers and animal care and control officers. The manual will contain a wealth of information on animal hoarding and animal cruelty as family violence indicators; details on possible recourses for older victims; and lists of legal resources, county social services agencies, and local animal protection agencies.

Other states will be able to model their own manuals on Wisconsin's, which is set for publication in the fall. Two states have already made cross-agency work a requirement: a California law requires animal control officers to report observed elder abuse, and Illinois requires the same of veterinarians.

A 2001 survey conducted by The HSUS and the National Center on Elder Abuse and funded by the Dr. Scholl Foundation demonstrated the urgent need for this kind of cross-agency cooperation. Sent to 500 individuals working in adult protective services, the survey elicited 170 responses from 40 states and demonstrated the following results:

  • More than 35 percent of respondents said that clients talk about pets being threatened, injured, killed, or denied care by the caregiver.
  • More than 45 percent reported seeing evidence of animal abuse or neglect during visits with clients.
  • Fewer than 25 percent said their agencies maintain policies for reporting suspected animal cruelty, and just 19 percent participate in cross-reporting and/or cross-training.
  • An overwhelming 92 percent reported the coexistence of self-neglect and neglect of animals.

Shelters and other animal protection organizations can do their part throughout the year by lobbying for statewide cross-reporting legislation, educating adult protective services workers about animal cruelty and animal hoarding, attending or hosting a First Strike workshop, or distributing First Strike's elder abuse brochure, "Making the Connection: Helping Vulnerable Adults and Their Pets." The HSUSvideo "Animal Hoarding: A Community Task Force Solution " offers an introduction to the hoarding phenomenon as well as a glimpse of the severe conditions that can result from hoarding. The video and accompanying brochure emphasize the necessity of cooperation and collaboration among local agencies to tackle the problem.

If you know of shelters or animal care and control agencies that are collaborating with adult protective services in your community or providing programs focusing on the link between animal cruelty and elder abuse, The HSUS would like to know. Contact Prevas at the numbers listed below.

For more information or to order the elder abuse brochure from The HSUS, call Virginia M. Prevas, manager of The HSUS's First Strike campaign, at 301-258-3076 or contact First Strike at 888-213-0956 or . First Strike is on the Web at


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