Senior meals program looks out for furry clients too

Seniors aren’t the only ones who have it tough living on a limited budget. So do their pets.

Nellie Watters, 77, had to go to reduced rations for her cat and three dogs, including a 200-pound St. Bernard, to make their food last.

Now, through a partnership between Meals on Wheels Atlanta and the Atlanta Humane Society, Cujoe, April, Momo and Tit Tat get a heartier serving most meals.

“I fed them but their portion sizes were smaller,” said the Atlanta retiree, who once tried to give the larger dog away, but he was returned. The pets have been her loyal companions for years.

“I was a little concerned. Dogs like to eat and I had to restrict their food. It was just too expensive. Now that they’re in the program, they get a little bit more and they look forward to it. They really do,”

The widowed Watters does as well. She spent at least $200 a month on pet food, money that now be used for other expenses.

Since the program started late last year, more than 42, 10-pound bins of cat and dog food has been delivered to Meals on Wheels Atlanta clients. No funds intended for seniors are used. The food is donated by the humane society. The Atlanta Humane Society has a similar partnership with a program that feeds seniors in Alpharetta.

It’s all part of an effort by hundreds of senior meals programs nationwide to extend their services to include pets. Many low-income seniors, such as Watters, still live in their own homes and have pets as companions, but feeding them can sometimes be difficult.

Locally, staffers and volunteers were worried that some senior clients were dipping into their own food deliveries to feed their pets. And that wasn’t good for either. Others were also using resources that could be used to pay other bills to feed their cats and dogs.

“It is often a struggle for them to care for and feed their pets due to limited resources,” said Joel Izlar, meal services manager at Meals on Wheels Atlanta, which delivers meals to about 300 low-income seniors a week.

Pets can play a key role in a senior’s overall emotional and physical well being, experts say. They offer companionship, help seniors get fit and have been used in help increase socialization and reduce agitation in people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Many people have pets as their only form of contact in the world,” said Izlar. “There is certainly a symbiotic relationship there.”

“This mission is to keep pets and their owners together said Jenny Bertolette, a spokeswoman for the Meals on Wheels Association of America, which represents about 5,000 senior community nutrition programs across the nation. “We don’t want seniors worried about feeding them and taking care of them.”

In 2012, the Banfield Charitable Trust distributed more than $160,000 in pet food grants to Meals on Wheels partners across the United States , including Meals on Wheels Atlanta.

Perhaps the best for such programs is Meals on Wheels of Greater San Francisco. Since 1984, Meals on Wheels has partnered with the Helen Woodward Animal Center to operate AniMeals, which delivers pet food to meals clients. Pet food is delivered to about 200 of the 1,200 or so clients, the program feeds each month. The supplies sometimes include toys and treats as well.

About four years ago, Meals on Wheels of Greater San Diego launched another program, Waggin Wheels, which brings pets into a senior’s home one or two days a week to increase socialization.

Although Meals on Wheels Atlanta has received funds from Banfield, staffers wanted to do more and reached out to the Atlanta Humane Society.

The payoff come to people like East Point resident Ava Washington and her husband, who live with two dogs on a fixed income.

Washington, who retired as a sales representative from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008, said she sometimes used rice, bread and meat from their Meals on Wheels food deliveries to stretch their dogs’ food, if it ran short.

“Of course I’m going to help my puppies out,” she said. The pet food bins “make a world of difference. I don’t worry about them because they have their own (food),” she said. “You should see my dogs now. They’re just beautiful and fat. “