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Virtual Play Date

January 4, 2021

Pam Harris and her certified therapy dog, Molly, loved visiting workplaces, nursing homes and hospitals to interact with people who appreciated the fun and furry social call.

The global pandemic changed all that, but the Edmond retiree and her canine found another way to reach out. With a click of her computer mouse, Harris and Molly are transported virtually into retirement homes and nursing centers to the delight of seniors residing there.

The free virtual visits are part of the Pets Together program created by the Animal Farm Foundation.

For Harris, whose 30-year career was in information technology, the program is one tailor-made for the COVID-19 crisis.

“Effectively, it’s a virtual puppy play date,” she said.

Online visits

Nicole Juchem, Animal Farm Foundation manager, said Pets Together was set up to connect people and their pets to individuals most at risk for social isolation and loneliness. She said it was the idea of a foundation staff member who was disappointed when she couldn’t visit with her grandmother who lived in a nursing home due to concerns about transmission of the coronavirus.

Older adults living in such centers often anticipate visits from family and friends but their vulnerability to COVID-19 meant those visits were abruptly curtailed.

“We started the program in April because we had to pivot like a lot of other organizations had to do,” Juchem said in a phone interview.

It became obvious almost immediately that Pets Together was going to be a hit.

Juchem said more than 700 virtual visits have been made since the program’s inception, with more than 1,000 volunteer pet owners signing up to participate.

“The facilities love it. The residents will talk about it all day,” she said.

Keeping it fun

The program’s leaders and participants have learned how to make each virtual visit meaningful for those who view them. Several volunteer pet owners and their animals are featured during each virtual visit so that people watching may have different interactions.

“We say ‘Hi’ at the beginning and we use the person’s name. We ask them about their day and about any pets they had. We ask what the weather is like and what they are doing,” Juchem said. “We’re just trying to make people’s day.”

She said volunteers are always welcome and because the visits are virtual, their animals don’t have to be certified through any particular program. She said volunteers of all ages are welcome, too.

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