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The Power of PetPals

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The Power of PetPals

Research shows that the unconditional love and companionship of a pet can directly impact health by decreasing stress, lowering blood pressure, reducing loneliness, increasing feelings of social support, and boosting mood. And that’s exactly why in 2003, with the love, passion, and tireless effort of Ellen Kirchheimer, FriendshipWorks launched its PetPals program — offering older adults living in facilities the chance to once again touch, cuddle, and bond with pets.      

Fast forward to 2024, Emily Lewis is the PetPals Coordinator at FriendshipWorks. Drawing from her personal experience of bringing her German Shepherd to visit her grandparents who had Alzheimer’s, Emily loves helping older adults experience the joy of pets. Recalls Emily, “When I brought Smudge to visit, there was an awakening in them, sparking memories and stories.” 

Emily recruits pets and their owners from the community for PetPals, then invites them to meet with an animal behaviorist to assess their temperament. Once they “graduate,” Emily assigns the teams to visit nursing homes, assisted living residences, and senior centers in Greater Boston. “The visits bring residents out of their rooms, and they connect with each other in a group. It is also amazing to see people who are nonverbal visibly react through their facial expressions and body language,” Emily says.

At Springhouse Senior Living in West Roxbury, Activities Director Karen Prest has witnessed these uplifting pet interactions among residents. “As soon as a PetPals pet arrives, there are instant smiles, and calm and happiness in the moment.” She finds the visits most beneficial to those in memory care. “If a resident is not having a good day”, Karen says, “a visit smooths things over or diffuses conflict. A resident can hang on to a positive emotion for 24-48 hours after a visit. They might not know why, but they just carry that positive mood with them.” 

Volunteers like Laurie Arnone also reap the benefits of sharing their pets with others; she makes visits with her cat, Mr. Bean. “Once I retired from my medical career, I looked for a way to give back,” she says. “Realizing I am owned by the most ‘chill’ cat ever, I chose to enroll him as a PetPals cat. I enjoy the [Springhouse] residents’ response to him as well as my interactions with them. It is a win-win for all involved!”

Over 30 Petpals’ volunteer teams bring the comfort of pets to 250 elders each month. The PetPals program is offered at over 25 locations around Boston.