March-April 2016

Finding Homes for Aging Cats

A Rockville rescue group matches seniors with aging cats that need a home.

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When Carolyn and John VanDyck’s two cats died within a month of each other last year, the couple was without a cat for the first time in almost 50 years. They wanted to adopt a new one, but were worried they wouldn’t be able to care for a cat as they got older. What if they got sick?
“I wouldn’t have thought of this when I was 50, or even 60,” says Carolyn, 73, a retired librarian who lives in Silver Spring. “We have many elderly friends, and it becomes an issue. Life can change very fast.”

She and John, 79, mentioned the concern to their vet, Dr. Elise Geldon of Liberty Falls Veterinary Clinic in Potomac, who told them about Rockville-based Seniors for Seniors Cat Rescue, a nonprofit that aims to place older cats with senior citizens. If someone adopts a cat and isn’t able to care for it, Seniors for Seniors will take the animal back. That was important to the VanDycks, so last March they adopted two 8 1/2-year-old cats—Toby, who has white fur, and his sister, Sweet Pea, an orange tabby.

“I just find them serenity-producing,” Carolyn says. “Just petting a cat in your lap, you can feel yourself relaxing.”

Started in 2011 by Marcy George and Radhika Rishi, Seniors for Seniors Cat Rescue found homes for 144 cats last year, averaging nearly three adoptions per week. George, a retired civil engineer technician, says cats ease loneliness in seniors, which can help lower their blood pressure, and that tasks such as changing a litter box or feeding a cat can give senior citizens a purpose. “There’s something about having to take care of something that really makes a difference for them,” George says.

George, the director of the rescue, and Rishi met about five years ago while George was volunteering at a cat rescue in Montgomery County and Rishi was there visiting. They noticed that some agencies preferred to place kittens, not older cats, in new homes and were reluctant to allow senior citizens to adopt because of their age. “It’s an absolutely ridiculous reason,” says George, who has four cats and a dog of her own. “I was so sad—I felt a sense of helplessness for these senior cats.”

While volunteering, George agreed to foster a 10-year-old black cat after its owner had a baby and the cat started causing problems. She brought the cat to an adoption event and found it a home. “I realized it could be done,” she says. That’s when George partnered with Rishi, who runs a nonprofit social service organization in Silver Spring called Rishi’s Vaisnava Center, to start their own rescue. (Seniors for Seniors’ current nonprofit status is linked to the organization, according to George.)   

“Everybody is obviously more eager to adopt a younger pet so that they don’t lose their pet so quickly. [But] the older pets are honestly some of the best pets,” says Geldon, who treats some of the cats in George’s care. “They certainly are going to have a better chance of adoption going through Marcy because she works hard to get them adopted.”

George keeps up to 20 cats at her Rockville home in a cattery, a 330-square-foot room in the basement that has a door to the outside. When the windows are open to let in fresh air, thick screens keep the cats from clawing their way out. Cats climb along shelves and play on rug-lined towers. Some stay in tiered cages while they get used to being with other cats.

Even with volunteers helping to feed the cats, clean the cages, change the litter boxes and process adoption applications, George spends 40 to 45 hours a week operating the program. She once matched an 11-year-old cat with an 84-year-old Olney resident whose dog had died; the woman knew she wouldn’t be able to walk a new dog. One of George’s volunteers, retired respiratory therapist Diane Tattersall of Rockville, adopted a 9-year-old short-haired orange tabby from the rescue last October. In January, George placed a cat with a 93-year-old Kensington woman.

It costs about $30,000 a year to operate the rescue, George says. Half of that comes from donations, the other half from fees.

Adoption costs range from $65 to $125, depending on the cat’s age, and there’s an intake fee of $300 for owners who leave their cats. George ensures that the cats are vaccinated and spayed or neutered, and new owners sign a contract stating that if they can’t care for the cat, they can bring it back. (That’s happened with five cats so far.) She’ll also match mature cats with younger owners.

“The idea is to place older cats with older people, but a good placement is a good placement,” says George, who has two sons (including one who is allergic to cats) and three young granddaughters.

George says she gets calls every day from shelters in Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina about cats that are in danger of being euthanized. She’ll take one or two if she has room and thinks she can place them. Purebred, long-haired and declawed cats are the easiest to place, though she sometimes takes in a cat simply because she likes it—or because she doesn’t have one of that color. While many of the cats stay in the cattery, some are placed in foster homes while awaiting adoption.

Dina Vizzaccaro of Alexandria, Virginia, brought her mother’s 7-year-old black cat, Shadow, to George’s house in December.

Vizzaccaro had tried to keep Shadow after her mother’s death, but he couldn’t get along with the cats she already had. She was turned down by four other cat rescues before she found George. “I think what Marcy’s doing is so special because he’s not a difficult cat, he’s not a bad cat. He’s just a cat whose mom died and he needed a home,” she says.

While the VanDycks read the newspaper and drink coffee in the morning, Toby and Sweet Pea often watch birds or squirrels from the couple’s screened-in deck. The cats follow John and Carolyn around at home and sit on their laps in the evening as they watch television. Toby enjoys playing with a toy mouse at bedtime, and Sweet Pea likes to sleep next to Carolyn. John, a retired auditor, thinks senior citizens are the best match for older cats. “They are home during the day and can enjoy each other,” he says. “They provide sort of a calming environment and they take off the rough edges. If you treat them right, they will treat you right.”

Maura Kelly Lannan is a former reporter for The Associated Press, Chicago Tribune and other publications. She lives in Potomac with her husband and three children.