By Beth Rasin
Ever since their lives were touched by a special senior pet, Brenda and Jim Scamordella have been on a mission to serve elderly animals and the community.
It was a cold, dark February night, and rather than being tucked up by a cozy fire with his wife Brenda, Jim Scamordella was driving his silver Toyota down the highway, trying to find a driveway that he’d already passed three or four times. He was on a bittersweet journey on this frigid night, delivering a special Lhasa Apso to its new owners.
He’d had Ming for more than a year, far longer than he usually keeps rescues before they’re adopted. But Ming wasn’t your average dog. She’d been surrendered by an owner’s second wife in favor of two new puppies, and the desertion had nearly killed her.
“She was snappy; she’d bite your arm off,” said Jim. “I think it was a lack of love.”
“And discipline,” interjected Brenda, as they sit at the kitchen table inside their rancher in Bealeton, Virginia, surrounded by feeding charts, worming schedules and an adoption status board, as well as Paws For Seniors hats and visors and “Who Rescued Who” magnets.
“It took us about a year before Ming really felt like a dog again and became a very sweet, socialized dog,” continued Jim. “We were able to take her out to an event; she was good with children again. She was special to me because I worked very hard with her; we bonded.”
But keeping canines isn’t Jim’s work — though he and Brenda have four of their own and are usually fostering about eight others, as well as 17 cats. The house is lined with dog beds and playpens, leashes, collars and bowls; two bedrooms are devoted entirely to cats. Instead, he and Brenda are focused on saving the animals most people ignore: the aged or infirm that would have trouble finding an owner in a traditional shelter.
“What makes it difficult is senior pets are always overlooked in shelters,” said Jim. “They are the first to be put down if space is limited. Everyone comes in to shelters and looks at young ones.”
Brenda and Jim first fostered for an organization that housed pets when an owner was fleeing a domestic violence situation or because of a foreclosure. It was a cause close to Brenda’s heart, as she’d been a victim of domestic violence and understood what owners were going through.
But one of the dogs they took in for this organization ended up touching them tremendously: a Golden Retriever-Cocker Spaniel mix named Daiquiri, who remained with them for the rest of her life.
“We realized senior pets really needed someone,” said Jim. “She was 19 [when we got her], and she almost made it to her 22nd birthday. She was our inspiration for starting Paws For Seniors.”
They were incorporated in January 2012 as a 501(c)(3). “We reached out to the community, did our market research,” said Jim. “We talked to the Fauquier SPCA, to see how we should proceed and get their input. We did a couple of events [the first being at Wylie Wagg in Middleburg] where we brought out a couple of senior dogs, ready for adoption, and talked to people about our mission. We knew we were on the right path, and there was a need for an organization whose main focus is the rescue of senior pets.”
Today, one of their newest initiatives involves matching appropriate pets with senior citizens on a fixed income. Paws For Seniors pays (and usually delivers) the animal’s food and veterinary care, and in turn the pets have a loving home, freeing up a foster spot for another dog or cat. They’re calling this “The Seniors For Seniors Program,” and Brenda believes it’s an especially great opportunity to help more cats.
“Most of our cats are at least 12, and they have plenty of life and love to give,” Brenda said. “Not a lot of people are going to adopt a cat like that because they’re afraid of future medical bills, but we’re willing to back that cat, and that gives us room to save more. Senior cats are overlooked far more than senior dogs, far more. We’ll even spring for an auto litter box if needed!”
Since they have no shelter, believing in the importance of a home environment to keep animals friendly and well-adjusted, each foster spot is precious. But the work benefits the people almost as much as the pets.
“We learned that we’ve almost become therapists,” said Jim. “We feel that a lot of senior citizens need the companionship of an animal, for several reasons. It’s a reason to get off their derrière, get out and walk. We’ve seen senior citizens’ eyes light up and their life just change.”
Another one of their programs involves visiting the memory support unit at the Villa of Suffield Meadows and the Fauquier Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Warrenton, Virginia. Every other Wednesday they bring four to 10 dogs and some cats to cuddle with the residents.
“It’s totally rewarding,” said Jim. “It’s not an adoption event, just us giving back.”
In fact, a Paws For Seniors cat, Alvin, who just died in July, earned the 2016 Planetree Pet Therapy Award from Fauquier Health Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. “He was a beautiful brown tabby, a social boy,” said Brenda. “He was one of those cats you could walk on leash. He loved to be held, and seniors just loved him.”
The Paws For Seniors pets arrive from a variety of shelters, with the group fielding about 100 calls and emails a day. Brenda and Jim and their foster families try to spend at least two weeks getting to know them and treating any medical or psychological conditions.
“We appraise them and their demeanor, look over records, take them to the vet for shots or operations if needed,” said Jim. “Many have been neglected, and a high percentage need dental surgeries.”
Jim, 68, used to work in IT and business development in Fairfax, Virginia, requiring him to wake at 3 a.m. for the commute. “Now I joke that I need to go back to work to rest,” he said.
He also spent 10 years in the Air Force, long before he and Brenda found each other over the internet, bringing Brenda all the way from Saskatchewan and both of them to a new calling.
While their work will never be finished — and they’ve yet to take a vacation since starting the organization — the growth only inspires them.
“It’s just snowballed,” said Jim. “Every year it’s doubled.”
As of early October, they’d taken in 247 cats and dogs and adopted out 195 animals for the year: 32 cats and 163 dogs.
“Being able to take these dogs or cats that nobody else would adopt and get the word out and get them into homes, as healthy as possible — that’s the big thing that keeps us driving,” said Brenda. “Matching a pet to a 93-year-old who needs that companionship, it’s just awesome. Thankfully through the years things have changed. More people are realizing the greatness of senior pets.”
“I’d like to think in this area that we’ve had something to do with that,” said Jim with a smile.
As for Ming, she happily spent her golden years traveling the country in an RV with the couple who adopted her and their other dog. She recently died, and Jim tears up a bit as he finishes her story. “I will never forget that adoption,” he said. “It came full circle.” ML