https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2021/11/09/kitten-therapy-foster-retirement-home/ [click thru for photos
She brought tiny foster cats into her office at a retirement home. Residents found out — and kitten therapy began.
By Cathy Free 11/9/21 at 6:00 a.m. EST
Estelle Nicol fell and injured herself six months ago, and when she moved into a care center in Orange County, Calif., her daughter noticed her beginning to withdraw.
“My mom was really sad and didn’t want to engage with people,” said Cathy Crair. “It was hard for her to leave her own home after so many years.”
Crair tried to persuade her mother, who is 98, to participate in social activities at the Meridian at Anaheim Hills assisted-living center, but she declined.
Then a few weeks later, a litter of newborn kittens showed up.
“My mom learned about the kittens and overnight we saw a change,” said Crair, 63. “She had something to hug and love.”
The litter was brought to the care center by Meridian business manager Lori Irby, who said she knew she was on to something the first time she carried a box full of kittens into work in 2019.
Irby was a new ASPCA foster caregiver for kittens that were abandoned at animal shelters near her home in Orange County, and she set up a playpen in her office to make it easier to feed the kittens every few hours, she said.
When several residents found out she was caring for the fuzzy kittens, the cat was out of the bag, so to speak. They began stopping by and asking if they could see them.
After ensuring that the seniors didn’t have cat allergies, Irby, 51, held her door open and told them to come in for some kitten therapy.
“To see their faces light up when they held the kittens was really heartwarming,” Irby said.
“There was one resident in particular who was suffering from PTSD and depression, but when she picked up a kitten, she instantly changed,” she recalled.
“She was smiling and calm for the first time in a long time,” said Irby. “I thought, ‘What if we were to offer the same experience to everyone?’ ”
With help from the Meridian’s activities director, Irby began scheduling “Kitten Therapy Day” every Wednesday in one of the center’s gathering rooms.
Now in its third year, the kitten play group is available to all residents who want to participate, providing they aren’t allergic to cats.
For about 45 minutes, the seniors take turns holding any kittens that Irby is caring for that week — usually three or four tiny felines between 2 and 8 weeks old, she said.
When the kittens are old enough to be spayed or neutered and put up for adoption (usually around 8 weeks), she’ll bring in a new litter.
About a dozen residents show up each week to play with the kittens and help them to become “socialized” around humans, said Irby, noting that more than half of the Meridian’s 200 residents have participated at least once.
“For many, it’s the highlight of the week,” she said. “It’s given residents something to look forward to, especially during the pandemic, when no visitors could come in. There’s just something really warm and comforting about holding a purring kitten.”
For Angela Shockley, the weekly play sessions have brightened her outlook.
“If you’re feeling down, you come away feeling happy — like you’re a new person,” said Shockley, 79, who has been at the Meridian for two years.
Shockley, who is originally from Italy, coos “bella mia” when she pets a kitten on her lap.
“They really seem to like that,” she said.
“Every Wednesday, I watch the clock and ask, ‘Is it time yet to go play with the kittens?’ ” she added.
Donald Friske, a former school principal who has always been a cat lover, said he enjoys snuggling with the kittens since he can no longer care for a cat of his own.
“I’m too unsteady on my feet now, so this is the ideal solution,” said Friske, 93. “I feel like the kitten therapy helps me both emotionally and physically, and it brings back lots of good memories of kittens from my past.”
Irby often puts a few kittens in a stroller and wheels them to residents who want to see the kittens but can’t leave their rooms. She said residents in the memory-care part of the building particularly enjoy the visits.
And it’s great for the kittens, too.
Felines that interact with humans when they are between 2 and 7 weeks old learn not to be afraid of people and are more easily adoptable, said Tina Fried, director of Los Angeles volunteer and kitten programs at the ASPCA.
“There’s a very short window to get them socialized,” she said. “Everyone wants the ‘cuddle’ cats — the ones that will sit on a lap and like to be played with. So what Lori is doing is actually helping to save kittens and get them into homes.”
The foster kitten program that Irby participates in has saved the lives of more than 8,000 kittens in Los Angeles since 2017, Fried said.
Shelters around the country take in 3.2 million cats a year, according to the most recent ASPCA statistics, from 2019. About 530,000 of those cats are euthanized.
“Well-meaning animal lovers will bring kittens to a shelter when they find them outside, but that’s actually the worst thing you can do,” noted Fried. “Most of these kittens are well cared for by their mother, who might be hiding from humans or out looking for food.”
Cat advocates are trying to educate the public to help reduce the number of kittens taken off the streets and taken to shelters. More foster caregivers are also needed to nurture the “drop- off” litters, she said.
Irby said that when she learned about the kitten overpopulation problem in shelters, she quickly signed up to help, even though she already has three cats of her own at home.
“If they’re really young, I’ll feed them with a bottle until they’re 4 weeks old and can eat on their own,” she said. “I feel that it’s important work — I’ve loved cats since I was a girl.”
When the kittens in her care are old enough to be spayed and neutered and placed by the ASPCA with cat rescues and animal adoption agencies, Irby said it’s often difficult for members of her kitten therapy group to say goodbye.
“They form attachments, so I have to tell them that the kittens have found their ‘forever’ homes,” she said. “They’re sad for a bit, and then I’ll bring in a new litter and the happiness starts all over again.”