Find out how nursing homes with cats are helping prepare kittens for the real world and enriching the lives of senior citizens.
In her office at Catalina Springs Memory Care in Oro Valley, Arizona, Rebecca Hamilton has a sign that says, “Sometimes we give comfort and receive comfort at the same time.” It was this ethos that inspired the registered nurse to form a partnership with Pima Animal Care Center. Each year, the county shelter takes in more than 2,000 kittens, some only days old. Lacking the resources to care for the helpless kittens, the shelter relies solely on volunteers to do this labor-intensive work — including Rebecca, who is experienced at fostering the most vulnerable bottle babies.
Rebecca said, “I have been known to have a carrier with bottle-feeding kittens hidden under my desk at various positions, but that doesn’t always work so well.”
In partnering with the shelter last fall, Rebecca not only got the opportunity to continue fostering kittens, but she also found a way to bring “meaning, depth and joy” to the lives of her residents by enlisting their help in caring for the cats.
“As you can imagine, people with memory issues are often being served by people,” she said. “They’re receiving services and resources, and they very rarely, at this point in their lives, have the opportunity to do important work. But they knew they were saving the lives of these kittens — they absolutely knew that.”
Memory care residents assisted primarily with bottle-feeding duties and general socialization, and the benefits were immediately apparent. At the facility, someone is around 24 hours a day, which is essential when caring for very young kittens, who need to be fed regularly every few hours. The residents also got the chance to rekindle some of their most natural instincts.
“You put a helpless baby in someone’s arms, and the ability to love and nurture does not disappear with cognitive function,” Rebecca said. “They just embraced those babies and wanted to help them. They were very adept at soothing them, socializing them and loving them.”
The benefits for the kittens are manifold as well. According to Karen Hollish, Pima Animal Care Center’s director of development and marketing, two litters of kittens have “graduated” from the program, and they were the friendliest kittens she’d ever seen.
“They get passed around from lap to lap to lap,” Karen said. When the residents are holding the kittens, they remember things from their childhoods about the pets they’d owned and loved. “And these are kittens we simply don’t have the resources to save,” she said. “We don’t have a kitten nursery here at the shelter. We don’t have 24-hour staff to feed them. For the kittens it’s a chance at a good, long life.”
Rebecca added that these cats are the best socialized kittens that anyone could possibly adopt. “From the very beginning they have gone from hand to hand to hand. They’ve been exposed to grandchildren of our residents — sometimes great-grandchildren. They love everybody.”
Since the program began, Rebecca has heard from many people who want to start similar programs in their communities. She pointed out that a strong partnership with a rescue organization is essential — but even more important than that is buy-in from the nursing home staff. Because very young kittens require 24-hour care, the staff also takes on part of the responsibility of caring for them.
“In the very beginning, some people said, ‘My job is to take care of residents, not take care of animals,’” Rebecca said. “As I pointed out, they are taking care of the residents, because this is an important activity that is being planned into their day. Once the kittens came, that all disappeared. The staff loved them. But I do think it’s important in any discussion to include the whole staff and get buy-in from the very beginning because they are very important to the success of the program.”
Only a few months in, the program has gotten worldwide attention, which has been surprising to both Rebecca and Karen. The success means the program will continue, when the memory care facility will help care for two litters of kittens — one for each wing.
“The world became enamored with this story,” Karen said. “We’re the local county shelter, so it’s really rare for us to get that broad of a reach. But this story took hold, and people have reached out to us because they want to do something similar in their community. It’s created all this good will, and hopefully it will create more programs like this.”
Read more about fostering kittens on Catster.com:
Angela Lutz is a freelance writer who loves yoga, fancy coffee and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with her three cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey, Phoenix and Salvador.