Volume 79, Number 39 | March 3 - 9, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Janel Bladow

PETS volunteer Helene Feldstein with Angel who she walks for owner Rev. Renee Linn.

A New Leash on Life
Volunteers help seniors care for their furry friends

By Janel Bladow

Murray Strelitz sees himself as the godfather.

Or, the caring friend who visits regularly to lend a hand and an ear.

He’s a member of a special group of New York City seniors – volunteers who help out elderly pet parents through a unique program started by the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged (JASA). Their PETS Project teams volunteers, often seniors themselves, with elderly pet parents who need help caring for their four-legged family members.

Volunteers assist with walking dogs, cleaning cat litter boxes, shopping for food and supplies, even taking animals to vet appointments. They also provide company to people who are often alone for days and serve as watchful eyes for social workers, noting health and behavior changes or other problems.

“I’ve had four dogs and four cats as clients,” says the Greenwich Village resident who has been a volunteer nearly five years. “I walked one Boston terrier for years and when his owner passed away, another volunteer adopted him. I’m now the godfather.”

Murray has two cats of his own but can’t seem to get enough of the critters.

“I love animals. When I retired, I wanted to be occupied, walk, do something meaningful and have fun doing it,” says the spry former computer consultant who worked with advertising agencies.

For several months now, he’s been visiting Anita Kushner, an artist who lives in Westbeth with her purebred Norwegian Forest cat Lucky. He changes the litter and makes small talk with the artist.

“We talk and tell stories. And I look around and make sure she’s feeling okay, able to take care of herself.”

On his first visit, “Lucky marched right up to meet me,” recalls Murray. “He’s a very friendly cat.

Recently, Anita was hospitalized after a fall. Murray came over, comforted and cared for the cat. Her next-door neighbor is now feeding and tending for the feline until Anita is well enough to come home.

Murray finds the tasks, even as menial as cleaning a litter box, rewarding. “I’ve become attached a few of the dogs and this has been great fun for me.

“Walking a dog takes about an hour. Almost anyone can make that much time to do something that makes them feel good,” says the 73-year old, joking: “And, I always ask for clients ten years older than me.”

The program, now in its tenth year, is the first of its kind in the country. Approximately 100 clients currently use the services of the more than 80 volunteers. The program also provides financial assistance for pet care expenses and clinical social work services. It’s available only in Manhattan to seniors, most who are on fixed incomes.

Social Worker Caroline Van Zandt oversees the program and says they go the extra distance to match volunteers with a senior and pet. Volunteers receive orientation and training and JASA supervises their first meeting as well as tracks their schedules.

“The volunteer and senior often become friends,” adds Alexandra Collier, Director of Volunteers & Special Projects at JASA. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Volunteer Helene Feldstein agrees. She’s been walking dogs for more than two years and is so committed that she occasionally has to pay someone to walk her dog while she cares for someone else’s pet.

Helene shares pet duty with volunteer Janet Anast, a retired schoolteacher and PETS volunteer since 2006. Together, they care for Angel, a spunky 11-pound Yorkshire terrier who is known as the unofficial Mayor of 78th Street.

His pet mom is Reverend Renee Linn. She is housebound and can barely walk due to several bone breaks and bouts with cancer. She’s grateful to the volunteers and adores her dog.

“I don’t know what I would do without him. Or, without these wonderful women.”

MARCH 2010


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