STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Dan Lago is a matchmaker with academic credentials, looking for the right companions for old people.
Pets are his project.
Lago, a professor of gerontology at Pennsylvania State University, first became interested in the effect pets had on older people while working on his doctorate on loneliness. He was struck by how often during an interview an older person would call a dog to sit in on the conversation.
That led him to found PACT--People and Animals Coming Together--a private, nonprofit organization that takes a scientific approach to finding the right pets for people 55 and older who are living alone.
One thing that sets PACT apart from similar organizations is that each recipient of a pet is assigned a permanent volunteer or sponsor who helps with the care of the pet and will take the animal back if things don't work out.
"The part that is unique is their attempt at a careful match of an individual with a permanent pet and then the assignment of a PACT member to be a sponsor and a support person," says Linda Hines, executive director of the Delta Society, based in Renton, Wash., which acts as a national clearinghouse of information about pet-people programs.
Lago says pets and people don't always get along.
"All you've got to do is look at the figures on animals that are turned in to shelters every year to recognize that the human-animal bond, however desirable and powerful it might be, doesn't occur automatically in every relationship with an animal," he says.
Love and Companionship
But for many elderly people, says PACT volunteer coordinator Diane Timblin, a pet offers love and companionship.
"For people who are housebound, without much human contact, pets are the difference between happiness and real unhappiness," she says.
And the animal's playfulness "let's you lighten up on life." Timblin adds. "You forget how sore your back is."
Dora-Mae Andre, a 77-year-old PACT member with a Pekingese named Mandy, agrees.
'Part of the Family'
"She's just like part of the family. I'm alone, I live alone and she really, really is an awful lot of company."
And taking care of Mandy helps Andre remember to take care of herself, she said.
"Because I am busy and do a lot of running in and out probably I wouldn't take a lot of time to eat. So when I give Mandy something, I feel I should give myself a little something."
Andre is one of many PACT members who shares her pet with area nursing home residents. "When you get talking to them and take your pet, they open up and say, 'Well, I had a dog. I had a cat,' " she said. "You know this is filling that void."
70% Success Rate
PACT, which now has about 40 volunteers and about 70 current clients whose average age is in the late 70s, has been successful in about 70% of its placements, Lago says. When matches have failed, it's usually been due to the extreme shyness or hyperactivity of the animals or the poor health of the owner. From experience, Lago stays away from puppies and dogs over 35 pounds.
Most of PACT's customers come through referrals. The first step is an interview with a PACT volunteer to determine the person's health, home life, financial status and attitudes toward animals. That information is turned over to an animal selection committee, which contacts pet owners, breeders or animal shelters. All PACT animals are donated.
Once a possible match is found, PACT arranges for a neutral meeting site where the person and animal can get acquainted.
"We find that if we bring an animal right into someone's home and say, 'Here's a dog, do you want to think about owning it?' they tend not to be very discriminating," Lago says. "They'll say, 'Oh great, here's my dog, you brought me my dog.' "
Assists with Food Bills
PACT offers pre-placement health care, licensing and basic training. It also assists with veterinarian and food bills, when needed, and sponsors help with pet-sitting, grooming or exercising, as well as transportation to the vet. Sponsors sometimes are called on for grief counseling when an owner's pet dies.
PACT was begun in 1981 as part of a research project that Lago was conducting with funding from a private foundation.
Lago began compiling sample groups of elderly to study. One group took pets from PACT and had the follow-up services. One group consisted of current pet owners. The others were former owners and people who had never owned pets.
From 1982 to 1984, Lago interviewed about 350 participants to try to see whether owning a pet affected the person's physical health or social relationships.
Pets Do Help
Lago found that "simply owning an animal doesn't have any relationship as far as we can tell with health or morale."
But among the 184 current pet owners he studied, he said, those who were particularly attached to their animals seemed happier.
"At the present time, I can't show statistically that pets are associated with improving physical health or with maintaining physical health," Lago says. "If we had a sample of 3,000 people rather than about 350 people, I think I could show that."
But that subset of pet owners who loved their animals and felt better about life is enough for Lago to justify continuing PACT.
"It does some of them good. It does some of them great good," Lago says. "I guess it's a question of how many people you think seeing an effect with is worthwhile."