March 12, 2001 -- Florida widow Louella Rohr had managed her share of problems in life when her mother died in 1990. Although her mother was very elderly, Rohr, then age 70, sank into a depression after the funeral.
So severe did it become that her physician prescribed antidepressants. But after a while, Rohr says she felt hooked. So she made a courageous decision. She signed herself into a 28-day detoxification program at a nearby hospital. She was looking forward to getting off the drugs but was anxious about how her constant companion, Zeeba, would fare without her. The sleek black Doberman meant everything to her. And with no family around, Rohr didn't know where to turn.
When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
Then someone told her about a program run by the Humane Society of Vero Beach. Under the Foster Pet Care Program, pets are temporarily housed at the Vero Beach shelter or sent to volunteers who take animals into their homes while owners are hospitalized or relocated after a significant life event. Zeeba was lucky enough to get in the program. And Rohr still remembers how happy Zeeba was to see her the day she finished the program and they were reunited.
Around the country, several similar programs are in operation, many of them modeled after the Vero Beach program, believed to be the first when it opened in 1986. Some foster pet care programs are dedicated to caring only for pets of owners with AIDS, while others care for pets whose owners are ill with any condition, or who are escaping domestic violence or natural disasters and can't immediately take their pets with them.
The arrangements vary, too. Some programs shelter the animals in a special part of their kennels; others send them to trained volunteers. Some programs do both. Foster owners are carefully selected and trained, and often are visited in their homes to assess their capabilities.
Whatever the specifics, the programs have a common denominator: making pets feel as comfortable as possible. But the benefits of such programs go far beyond the pets, advocates say. Because a growing body of research suggests health benefits of the human-animal bond, it makes sense that disrupting that bond by removing a pet permanently isn't advisable. Foster care can relieve owners' anxieties and allow them to focus on recovering or rebuilding their lives. And there's yet another advantage: volunteers who care for these pets say their sense of well-being increases.