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These volunteers are helping older Vermonters care for their pets

A man with short grey hair sitting in an armchair is holding a big black cat with two hands-- part of his face is obscured by the cat.
Olivia Conti
Vermont Public / Community News Service
John Chittenden holds one of his cats at his home in Shelburne in April. For over a year, he’s had help caring for his cats through a volunteer program called Aging in Place with Pets.

John Chittenden lives in a small apartment in Shelburne with his two cats, Bam Bam and Pebbles. They’re siblings — Bam Bam is territorial and acts like Garfield the cat, while Pebbles is more gentle.

“She likes to sit with me and watch TV with me or listen to music,” Chittenden said.

There’s a drawing of them and Chittenden hanging on his fridge, pinned up by a magnet that says “cat dad.” He can’t imagine his life without them.

“It's very much companionship for me,” he said. “It makes me feel I'm not lonely, they're here with me, and they're my children, I should say.”

Two black and white pencil drawings. The one on the left is of a man sitting on a recliner with one cat on his lap and the other on the armrest looking at him. The second shows both cats sitting on a windowsill.
Olivia Conti
Vermont Public / Community News Service
Chittenden's home is full of cat decor, including drawings of his cats hanging on the fridge. He said they're like his children.

But it hasn’t always been easy for him to take care of his cats — he has chronic pain and arthritis in his hands.

For over a year, he’s gotten assistance through a volunteer program to help older adults age in place with their pets. It’s a partnership with the senior housing community where he lives, Cathedral Square.

The program helps him with things like bringing his cats to the vet and trimming their nails. And he gets a discount on pet food. Right now, around a dozen interns regularly assist about 30 people at three Cathedral Square locations.

There are a number of other pet assistance programs in the state, but not many help pet owners directly in their homes.

“That's why my interns and I are stepping in to help them with their pets, to make sure that they have them for as long as they can,” said Blake Randell, an occupational therapist who runs the program as a volunteer.

John Chittenden’s cat Pebbles in his Shelburne apartment. A volunteer program helps him bring his cats to the vet, trim their nails, and provides a discount on pet food.
Olivia Conti
Vermont Public / Community News Service.
John Chittenden’s cat Pebbles in his Shelburne apartment. A volunteer program helps him bring his cats to the vet and trim their nails. And it provides a discount on pet food.

He’s had clients who’ve had to relinquish a pet, and he said older adults are less likely to adopt a pet. But, he said, they have a lot to gain from having pets, from improved physical health to a better quality of life.

It’s something he can relate to, because of his own connection with his pets.

“Every day and every night I have the honor and privilege of walking home to be welcomed by two cats, whose names are Lucy and Annie,” Randell said. “I want to make sure that every older person has that opportunity for as long as they are ready, willing and able to do so.”

Another need the program is trying to fill is dog walking.

That’s what Viannie Rivera does in South Burlington every Friday. She’s a student at the University of Vermont and an intern with the Cathedral Square program.

She walks a little black dog who’s 10 years old and still full of energy.

“This is Harry,” she said during a walk on a wet, gloomy day in April. “It’s very fitting because of his hair.”

For her, the best part of the program is getting to know the personalities of the pets and their owners.

“It’s really fun. I'm going to be quite sad when this semester ends,” she said. “I feel like I have gotten close to some residents, and I obviously adore seeing their pets and helping them.”

This story was produced in collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service — a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.

Olivia Conti is a senior at the University of Vermont studying Public Communication. She loves storytelling and is interested in podcasting.
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