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Senior cats join senior citizens in a unique Tucson foster care program

The late Pearl Kitay and her foster cat, Ringo (Courtesy Hearts That Purr Sanctuary)

Ringo the cat spent the past two glorious years with his foster “mom,” Pearl Kitay. Kitay was a dog person and Ringo was her first cat. But it didn’t take long for them to adjust to one another. In fact, they became best friends and housemates. “My routine is pretty much the same,” Kitay told the AJP. “Every morning we get up and have breakfast and Ringo’s new favorite treat. It’s very nice to have ‘someone’ waiting at home and to talk to.”

Ringo readjusts to Hearts That Purr Sanctuary

“Mom looked forward to getting home so she could spend time with Ringo,” said Kitay’s daughter, Nancy Galdi. “This was wonderful for both of them. I have highly recommended this foster program because of the joy received from having Ringo, as well as the service it provides for both the pet and foster parent. Ringo was a wonderful companion. He was loyal, playful and very loving.”

When Kitay died Feb. 14 from complications following surgery, Ringo returned to the Hearts That Purr Sanctuary’s Senior Citizens and Senior Kittizens foster program. “We were able to bring home some of Pearl’s things for Ringo, like her favorite housecoat,” says Jeanmarie Schiller-McGinnis, Hearts That Purr’s founder. “We believe Ringo knows it was hers and he likes to sit on it. Scent-reassurance from home can be a comfort when a kitty is missing his human, so never be in a hurry to pack things up or throw them away when dealing with a grieving kitty who is being rehomed. Sometimes the little things matter most when you are missing your best friend.”

Since 2013, it has been Hearts That Purr’s mission to provide “loving care for the cat you leave behind.” The foster program was created in 2015, to match mature adults (55+) with loving “kittizens”’ from the senior cat sanctuary.

Some cats are rescued from public shelters, and others come to Hearts That Purr through the Feline Guardian program, an estate planning arrangement of guaranteed lifetime care for those who worry about their cat should it outlive them. In this unique two-part program, Hearts That Purr hosts senior cats whose owners are unable to care for them due to a terminal illness. These cats still have love and companionship to give. Through the foster program, they may be placed as permanent foster pets with capable seniors who desire kitty comrades.

With many older adults living alone and feeling isolated, having a cat confidant can bring a boost in mood and provide a sense of purpose. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health show that animal companions provide heart-related health benefits as well. The Senior Citizens and Senior Kittizens program intends to be a permanent placement for the cat, with ongoing support from Hearts That Purr. If a participant is unable to continue with the care, the cat simply returns to the Hearts That Purr Sanctuary in Tucson.

Schiller-McGinnis realized the special needs presented by beloved older cats and their elderly caregivers. “Without preplanning and prior arrangements in place with family or friends, many older cats meet tragic ends when their caregiver enters hospice or passes on,” she says. “Finding homes for senior felines can be challenging. Many who survive their owners may never find another home and could die in shelters. Hearts That Purr is a sanctuary, not a shelter, and we are unique in Arizona in the services we provide. As a non-profit organization, we depend upon our volunteers and public donations to care for these special senior cats.”

When the fortunate felines arrive at the spacious Hearts That Purr ranch house in northwest Tucson, they meet the volunteer “cat whisperers” who pamper and pet them, and provide for all needs, physical and medical. Duchess, a beautiful 17-year-old snowshoe Siamese, presides in her comfortable chair in the warm country kitchen. In the large living room nearby, JJ, Foxy, Munchie, and Thelma greet their caregivers with purrs, awaiting treats, head rubs, or catnip toys, and lap time.

The rest of the kitty crew members reside in their own special rooms, usually with two cats to a living area. There are no cages; it is a huge home with lots of couches, chairs and cat trees with secret hiding spots. Bonded pairs like 15-year-old brothers Hewey and Tudley stay together as their previous caregiver wished. Currently, 26 cats reside in the large home and guesthouse spread over 6,000 square feet, and some of these are Senior Kittizens awaiting foster placement. A number of these cats, due to serious medical issues, will continue to live comfortably in the home in the hospice room and receive love and care from their feline guardian angels for the rest of their lives.

“Ringo was such a joy for my mom,” Galdi emphasizes. “There was someone there that needed and wanted her. I think what they are doing is a blessing for so many, human and pet alike.”

Ongoing support, including veterinary care, is available for qualified foster kittizens. New volunteers are welcomed, and can contact Schiller-McGinnis for details. As one cat dad says, “I’ve told multiple friends of mine that I can’t believe what a wonderful organization Hearts That Purr is and how much enjoyment it has provided in my life. If my cat Cassie could talk, I’m sure she would say the same thing.”

Information is available at www.heartsthatpurr.org.

M.M. Graf is a retired teacher and Hearts That Purr volunteer.

Pearl Kitay died before this article could be published. Her obituary is on page 22.