Purrfect: Upper East Side Nonprofit Helps Seniors Care for Beloved Pets

By Victoria Bekiempis on February 11, 2013 10:27am 

UPPER EAST SIDE — Alejandro was born wearing a tuxedo.

Indeed, this sleek black cat with furry white paws is the polite type who is even rumored to pen his own thank-you notes.

He's also Yorkville senior Mario Romero's closest companion.

"He was on his back giving his tummy away. He was saying, 'Take me! Take me! I'm the one!'" Romero said of the day they first met several years ago at an Animal Care & Control shelter.

"I love that little critter."

So when the 71-year-old's arthritis made it nearly impossible to care for Alejandro — causing him several scary falls while tending the litter-box — he was heartbroken, he said.

Enter Search and Care — a nonprofit that helps 700 area seniors with day-to-day activities like getting to doctors' appointments and grocery shopping. The program was able to match Romero with volunteer Tony Friedman, a Marymount Manhattan College student who comes by to help with 6-year-old Alejandro once a week.

The pet program is part of the organization's Pet and Elder Empowerment Project (PEEP), which is now entering its third year with help from a grant from Amie's Place Foundation.

Many of Search and Care's elderly clients are home-bound and live on low, fixed incomes. About 70 have benefited from the pet program, said Robin Strashun, outreach and volunteer coordinator.

Specific pet-centric programs like PEEP are vital, Strashun said, because many home-care workers aren't permitted to handle animals — even when it comes to something as simple as feeding them.

The PEEP program assists participants with tasks such as litter-box cleaning, dog-walking, and transporting pets to and from vets.

The initiative can also provide helpful "pet therapy," since volunteers often bring their own animals when they visit the seniors' homes, Strashun said.

Like Romero, Friedman fell in love with Alejandro at first meow, he said.

"I like all animals, and when I went to visit him the first time, he reminded me of a Muppet — so much personality," said Friedman, 21.

The Amie's Place grant also has equipped Search and Care with a small emergency fund for clients' animals, Strashun said.

This allowed the agency to buy a client a real litter box, rather than the lasagna pan he had been using, Strashun said. For another client, the fund pays for her cat's annual claw-clipping.

The grant also lets Search and Care send PEEP participants' Christmas stockings — for which Alejandro apparently was very grateful.

"TO SEARCH & CARE THANK YOU SOO MUCH FOR THE CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS," Alejandro wrote in a thank-you note.

"I REALLY ENJOY ALL THE PRETTY MICE AND OTHER GOODIES."

Those who know Romero best — including Friedman and his care manager Sergio Leyva   — said PEEP has boosted Romero's quality of life.

With Alejandro around, Romero is happier and healthier, they said.

"He's not as socially isolated like in the past," said Leyva, who's worked with Romero for two years. "He's more friendly, less depressed — I've seen the changes."

Romero couldn't agree more.

He said he and Alejandro relish Friedman's weekly visits.

"He's very special. He's like a son," Romero said of the volunteer who has enabled him to keep his beloved companion.

"Cats helped to restore my humanity — to make me feel that I was capable of loving once more and that there was something in life, on this Earth, that was worth loving," Romero added.

"The more I love my cat, the more I love other people."

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