Thursday, January 29, 2009

When Pets Outlive Their Owners

When Walter died at the age of 97 there was no one left in his immediate family except Millie.

Millie was a more-or-less cocker spaniel of questionable heritage. Her legs were too short for her body, and there was an interesting ruff around her neck that suggested a chow somewhere on the family tree. Millie was a happy little love-any-burglar-to-death gal who gave Walter a reason to get up in the morning, and lots of little jobs to keep him on schedule throughout the day.

While Walter wasn't rich by any means, he was rich in the love he and Millie shared. His only real worry as he got older was about Millie, who was a far sight younger than he was. "I want you to make sure that Millie has a home when I go," was his emphatic instruction the day we met.

It took some doing, but we made it happen. The fact that Walter was prepared to do what needed to be done to make it happen is what gives this story its happy ending.

Walter was able to remain active in his church because someone came to give him a ride every Sunday. After we brainstormed a bit, Walter decided to approach this much younger woman (age 75 or thereabouts) about adopting Millie "when the time comes." She knew Millie, and they got along.

Now, this woman, while willing, was living on a fixed and fairly low budget. Her only concern was that she couldn't afford the food and veterinary care Millie would need. The loving part she could handle.

So we set up a meeting with Walter's attorney. This attorney drew up an addendum to Walter's will, setting aside a sum of money in a special trust to be used for Millie's care as long as she lived. Any money remaining in the trust when Millie died was designated to a rescue organization, to be used to help other Millies.

The day Walter passed away and I got the call, I simply had to call Millie's new mother, and we made arrangements for Millie to go to her new home. While Millie obviously mourned Walter, she made a good adjustment in time, and she is now thriving. I'm sure Walter is looking down and watching with a smile, because everything turned out the way he wanted.

Millie and Walter's story isn't typical. How many times, when an owner dies or moves to long term care, do beloved pets end up in shelters, with three days to be adopted before they are euthanized? Or even worse, end up on the street? I don't know, but I do know that it's far too many.

We make arrangements for our children to have care if something happens to us. We do the recommended planning for our own care, should that be needed. We prepare wills and trusts to bequeath our stuff. We're rarely as prepared as Walter was to take care of our pets, who depend on us just as much as our children.

If you know older persons with pets, ask if they have made any pet lifecare arrangements you should know about. If the answer is, "Yes," offer to help get their instructions written down, so there is no confusion about what will happen to the pet should the worst happen. If you know that there will be funds available to help subsidize the cost of caring for an older animal, offer to help your senior get any necessary legal advice to set up lifetime pet care arrangements. Your senior will probably be relieved, and you may well save the life of a treasured pet who depends on us.

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