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Constant Companions: Pets bring benefits to older LGBTQ+ adults

By Niki D’Andrea, August 2020 issue.

Ernie the cat has a daily routine with his humans, Phoenix couple Robrt Pela and Todd Grossman.

Ernie’s morning coffee.

Every morning, he cranes his neck to be adorned with one of the necklaces Grossman handmakes for him. Then he takes his morning “coffee” —whipped cream in a dish that he licks from Pela’s finger. The 50-something couple has become so accustomed to their routine with the 17-year-old cat that it’s hard to imagine being without him.

“One of the things Robrt and I talked about is, what is life after Ernie going to look like? Luckily, we’re such a happy couple and we’re never at a loss for each other’s company, and I think Ernie feels that, too,” Grossman says. “But it’s hard to imagine a life without him.”

Research shows pets provide companionship and health benefits for older LGBTQ people, especially those who may not have a partner or family. Those benefits have become even more important during the coronavirus pandemic, as people shelter in place and practice social distancing.

Peeta.

In 2018, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a study titled “Lifesaving in Every Way: The Role of Companion Animals in the Lives of Older Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adults Age 50 and Over.” The findings showed older LGBT adults with a pet had higher perceived social support. Many viewed their pets as kin.

One study participant, a 77-year-old lesbian named Patricia who has a dog and a cat, said, “My biological family, nuclear family, has died. The animals and my roommate comprise my little family.”

For many LGBTQ people, animals provide not only companionship, but a source of unconditional acceptance. Comedian Maryanne Marttini will be 74 in August. As a trans-woman living with her wife in Sun City West, she’s not exactly surrounded by LGBTQ social clubs. “Pets give you unconditional love. That’s the most important thing you get from your pets,” Marttini says. “You can just be who you are.”

“There’s nothing more soothing than having a cat on your lap,” she adds. “That’s more relaxing and less stress. If you have a cat and drink expensive bourbon, you drink a lot less.”

Pets can also have a positive impact on their humans’ physical health. Ernest, a 59-year-old gay man with HIV and depression, explained in the NIH study how his dog impacts his life: “If there hadn’t been him, I would’ve had no reason to ever get out of bed for many days, many weeks. But because he has to be walked twice a day, every day, that excuse is out the window. I have to get up because I have to take medicine and because I have to take medicine, I have to eat. He’s been my lifeline the past three years.”

Snow poses on the stairs.

Bretta Nelson, public relations manager for the Arizona Humane Society, says pets not only enhance peoples’ health, but also their socialization. “Pets are such an integral part of our lives and offer so many emotional and physical health benefits, which include decreases in blood pressure, stress, and cholesterol, as well as feeling of loneliness and depression,” Nelson says. “For people who live alone, pets also increase opportunities for outdoor activities like walks, which can often lead to meeting new people and bonding over a mutual love of pets.”

One of the subjects in the NIH study, a 65-year-old lesbian named Leslie, met most of her friends through her dogs. “There was a large group of us that used to walk in a local park every Sunday morning and my close friends were part of that,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of people through dogs and they’re also good for getting you out and getting exercise.”

Marttini and her wife’s two cats, Buddy and Kodi, provide an endless source of entertainment for the couple, especially since they have been home most of the time during the pandemic. She says they trained them to fetch. “Having cats during the sequester is pretty entertaining. We don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have any cats here, especially now that we’re home a lot,” Marttini says. “Cats are like people – the older they get, the more attention they want. You want to be around people.”

Moon Moon with Pride toy.

As some people continue to socialize mostly online, animals have become a source of distraction from the daily news. When Pela started posting photos of Ernie on his Facebook page every day back in April, he had no idea it would become as popular as it is now, with his more than 2,600 Facebook friends checking in and commenting on the “Your Daily Ernie” photos: Ernie staring down a vacuum cleaner, Ernie sniffing some cat grass, Ernie standing on his hind legs looking fierce while swatting at a toy mouse.

“We were in a really terrible place where it was beginning to become clear that this was not going to be a two-week quarantine,” Pela says. “So, I thought, ‘What can I do besides proselytize or lecture or say something snarky that’s going to make it worse? I know – I will take one of the many, many photographs that Todd takes of our cat and I’ll just stick it up.’ And the response was very specific – ‘Thank you for lightening things up. I really needed that.’ So, it became a daily thing and then it kind of exploded.”

Many animal welfare organizations, including the Arizona Humane Society and the Arizona Animal Welfare League, reported a consistent rate of adoptions and long wait lists to foster during the pandemic despite reduced operations. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, shelters across the country have seen significant increases in people wanting to foster and adopt pets, making it clearer than ever just how critical the human-animal bond is,” Nelson says.

And adopting an older pet has its perks, Nelson says. “Senior pets can make some of the best pets since what you see is what you get with a senior pet. Their manners are already established, house training and the destructive phase are a thing of the past, and you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks!”

Moon Moon with Pride toy.

Former Echo managing editor Liz Massey, 51, now lives in Virginia with her wife, and they have fostered several animals for the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SCPA) during the pandemic, in addition to caring for their two cats and two Great Danes.

“Our pets and fosters offer us endless amusement. One or more of them does something every day that causes us to laugh or takes our mind off the insanity of the world right now,” Massey says. “Most of them are friendly and give and receive love freely, without judgment.”

“I think beyond the fact that pets give love without judgment, the best thing about pets or fostering is that it can really put your life challenges in perspective,” Massey adds. “No matter how bad your day has been, having an animal that needs your care or just wants to cuddle can be a reminder that your life has value. I think a lot of LGBTQ+ people gravitate to owning pets because they provide judgement-free love and a purpose that doesn’t have to be squashed to fit into relationship or gender stereotypes.” 

Maryanne with cats.

Barrio Café owner Silvana Salcido Esparza, 60, adopted a little black kitten in June, which she named Moctezuma. After losing her dog in her divorce from her wife and self-isolating during quarantine, she says she reached out to social media. “I posted that I need a kitten or a puppy or a girlfriend,” Salcido Esparza says. “I got a lot of offers for kittens, a few for puppies, and none for a girlfriend. So, I’m getting a lot of jokes that I was chasing pussy.”

She quickly bonded with Moctezuma, who crawled into her lap as soon as she met him. “My animals are my family. No different than my work family. The people who work for me, we’re a family and we work together to make things happen,” Salcido Esparza says. “And the same thing happens with my animals. I have a responsibility and they have a responsibility. My responsibility is to keep them safe, healthy, and fed. Their responsibility is to basically live happy and that’s going to make me happy. So, therefore, we’re all happy.”