COVID causes unprecedented boom of volunteers helping seniors and their dogs

May 3 2021, 11:29 am

The Friendly News is a collaboration between TELUS and Daily Hive. Together, we’re creating a space for important, feel-good community stories to be told, where Canadians can immerse themselves in uplifting news and articles featuring community leaders giving back during a time when we all need it most.

Written for Daily Hive by Katie Nanton, a Vancouver-based freelance writer.


Anyone who has welcomed a dog into their home understands how deep that bond can be. Just glancing around public parks during COVID makes for an easy indicator of people craving companionship during isolation—new puppies everywhere.

But for aging dog owners, many of whom were somewhat isolated even before the pandemic hit, it’s not always easy to care for a pet. Now, Canadian seniors and dogs have never felt so supported, thanks to ElderDog — and the pandemic.

Originally founded in Nova Scotia in 2009, ElderDog Canada has grown to span the country with 29 “Pawd” volunteer groups made up of almost 2,200 volunteers who provide support for elderly (humans) and their loyal (four-legged) friends.

Cassie the senior dog / ElderDog

Cassie, 14 years old, belonged to a senior client, / ElderDog

The non-profit organization has a goal of honouring and preserving the animal-human bond, and provides volunteer help to seniors with the goal of keeping their dogs healthy, and in their lives, for as long as possible.

From basic dog walking, to helping deal with bereavement after a beloved dog has passed, support comes in many forms. If a senior needs assistance adopting a dog, or re-homing their pet when the time comes to let go, ElderDog can help there, too.

It’s a feel-good organization through and through, with the well-being of both owner and pup at the heart of it all.

It was business as usual at ElderDog—like any charity, always in need of more volunteers—until COVID struck. ElderDog immediately noticed a country-wide uptick in volunteers eager to get out of the house, go on walks, and feel of use to their community during a time of uncertainty.

Baby Girl with her senior owner, Nancy / ElderDog

Baby Girl with her senior owner, Nancy / ElderDog

In Vancouver specifically, numbers skyrocketed from 86 volunteers in December 2019, to 267 in December 2020. As of April 2021, that count has reached 443 volunteers.

“As an organization we have grown considerably during the pandemic,” says Ardra Cole, founder and executive director of ElderDog Canada, who started the charitable organization as an act of love after volunteering in long-term and palliative care facilities with her now-deceased dog, Tattoo, and seeing first-hand the comfort that canines brought to seniors.

“[This uptick is] perhaps due to some extra time people have had available, perhaps because we are all reminded what vulnerability feels like and the importance of kindness and compassion, and, most likely, because spending time outdoors with a dog, while helping a senior, is as good as it gets!”

Cole adds how the relationship has also strengthened between volunteers and elderly dog owners.

“Volunteers who ordinarily would add on a few extra minutes for a friendly in-person visit have maintained contact by telephone and distanced visits,” she explains.

“That has made the world of difference for those who have had little to no other human contact.”

ElderDog

Cooper and Ellie with volunteer Bob / ElderDog

Christina Saremba was a volunteer member of Vancouver’s Lower Mainland Pawd during this pandemic-related shift, and credits work-from-home life, and general isolation, as a key reason for the increase in interest.

“There are a lot of people who live by themselves, and humans have an innate need for companionship. Many people are looking to fill that void,” says Saremba.

“This program is a real positive for not only the seniors and their pets, but for the volunteers too, who may not have the capacity for a full-time pet in their life.”

While the organization is not a kennel service, ElderDog can also provide emergency fostering when a senior suddenly needs full-time dog care, in situations like medical emergencies.

“We had a lady contact us about a year ago,” Saremeba says.

“She had gone in for knee surgery and had to put her dogs in a kennel—but there was no way she could afford that.”

A short-term foster family was arranged, and then dog-walking care once the owner had returned home to heal, allowing her to get through a difficult period without increased financial burden.

When vet visits become difficult for an elderly owner, and might otherwise be ignored, a volunteer can whisk away a sick pet to the clinic—it’s especially helpful to have a range of volunteers spread out in different areas for these more time-sensitive issues.

As for navigating the pandemic, the organization is an essential service and all necessary safety precautions are in place: dogs are collected at doors for their walks, for example, with all parties masked up for the exchange.

With a strengthened volunteer force behind it, ElderDog’s services symbolize a mutually rewarding act of love and goodwill during a time when, frankly, everyone involved needs it the most—humans and canines alike.

Click here to learn more about ElderDog Canada.

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