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Tucson program finds innovative way to pair cats with seniors
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feline friendship helps senior citizens

Tucson program finds innovative way to pair cats with seniors

Katherine Fitzpatrick enjoys a visit from Eddie, a 10-year-old cat from Yuma, during her stay at Tucson Medical Center. Fitzpatrick was partnered with Eddie through the Hearts That Purr organization.

After her husband died and the days became a bit long, Donna Pfeif’s doctor gave her an unusual prescription.

“Get a cat.”

Sadly, the first animal she adopted became sick — and costly — and eventually had to be euthanized.

Pfeif didn’t think another animal would be possible, but today she is enjoying the funny antics of a 12-year-old feline named Puddy, as in the famous Looney Tunes’ line, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat.”

Their friendship came by way of a local nonprofit that has started pairing older cats with older residents. Hearts That Purr Feline Guardians not only helps with the matches, but director Jeanmarie Schiller-McGinnis and her volunteers stay in touch regularly — and the organization maintains ownership of the cats.

The nonprofit got started in 2013, with Schiller-McGinnis taking in older cats that had outlived their owners, or who couldn’t stay home because of their owners’ failing heath. She got the senior foster program going a year ago and so far has placed about nine cats with senior companions.

“It’s not an adoption,” she said. “They are fostering the cat, but we retain legal ownership.”

Schiller-McGinnis helps out with the costs that sometimes prevent people from pursuing pet ownership: veterinary bills, food, ongoing care. Once a foster is in place, if the person can no longer take care of the cat for any reason, Schiller-McGinnis takes it back.

For Pfeif, that was key.

“I would never have taken in another animal if she weren’t taking on the vet bills,” she said. “I couldn’t afford it.”

The program has been underway for less than a year, and Schiller-McGinnis is looking for more volunteers to help her realize her vision. Eventually, she hopes to rescue more older cats from local shelters.

Shari Ronstadt said Hearts That Purr dramatically changed her mother’s life. Katherine Fitzpatrick, 93, lives at Villa Maria Assisted Living and, a couple months back, lost her longtime cat, Millie.

“I saw her outlook, her energy, her demeanor, everything start to slide,” she said. “She told me she hated to go back to her apartment because there’d be nobody to greet her at the door.”

Fitzpatrick was reluctant to get a new cat, but knowing she’d have help and support sealed it. She has been fostering Eddie, who is 10 and hails from Yuma.

“She is absolutely crazy about Eddie,” Ronstadt said. “She thinks he’s the smartest cat.”

Earlier this week, Fitzpatrick fell and is now hospitalized at Tucson Medical Center. Eddie, for the time being, is back with Schiller-McGinnis.

Ronstadt said her mother can’t wait to get home to Eddie, that caring for him gives her a sense of purpose and a reason to live.

Fitzpatrick’s doctor, Tucson geriatrician Elise Reinhard, said she’s recommended a number of her patients get in touch with Schiller-McGinnis.

“Hearts That Purr go out of their way to make it easy,” she said. “You’re not completely taking on the responsibility of caring for a pet.”

Reinhard said she asks every new patient if they have pets or grandchildren, and if they feel lonely in their day-to-day life. “I ask, ‘What keeps you going and what is important to you?’” she said.

“I think staying socially, mentally, physically active is so important for so many reasons,” she said. “It’s so easy for people to become more isolated as they age, to lose those social connections.”

Often, she said, animals are a good fit for someone who wants more companionship. Exercising and caring for a dog fits for some, she said, while others are better suited to life with a cat.

“Cats like quiet environments and, while they need attention, they need minimal care and minimal activities,” she said. “For some, cats are ideal.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or

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