Purks is one of 1,000 volunteers for Pets Together, a free virtual pet visit program offered to seniors in metro Atlanta and nationwide who are living in group settings, such as nursing homes and assisted living communities.
Video chats also are available to doctors, nurses, and other health professionals on the front lines fighting the coronavirus.
Since pets can’t make live visits right now, these volunteers are filling the gap. Using video chat services, like Zoom, volunteers and their pets get on a 30-minute call and participate in friendly interaction.
During the pandemic, Purks works from home as the University of Georgia assistant athletic director of event management. She signed up as a pet volunteer in April, after hearing about the program and the need for help. The chat visits don’t require much time, and she enjoys meeting the other volunteers, and interacting with the residents.
“I like seeing their faces light up,” Purks said. “A lot of them will talk about their animals — pets they’ve had in the past, or if there’s one at the facility.”
Pets Together aims to bring joy and comfort to those feeling socially isolated and lonely. It is a program of Animal Farm Foundation, a nonprofit in upstate New York offering various services to bring dogs and people together.
During the onset of the pandemic, Pets Together was launched in one Maryland nursing home. The response was so overwhelming the organization decided to take it national.
“Pets bring us comfort during times of distress, but not everyone is in a position to have one,” said Stacey Coleman, Executive Director of Animal Farm Foundation.
“One of the many effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is social isolation and loneliness, which were already highly prevalent before the crisis. We designed Pets Together to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances by tapping into the power of pets to spread joy and bring people together,” she said.
Purks and Cali have connected with seniors in multiple states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Arizona. In the metro area, Rosemont at Stone Mountain, a nursing home and rehabilitation facility, has offered the program.
“We have received so many inspiring responses from the facilities and the volunteers. It is amazing to see what a positive impact this program is making with those that are isolated and the volunteers,” spokeswoman Judy Klym said.
While there are numerous dogs and cats, pet volunteers bring farm animals and exotics, too. There are horses, goats, cows, chickens and other birds, snakes, and bearded dragons.
More volunteers are needed, especially those with unique pets, Klym said. Pets do not have to be certified therapy animals.
“As the pandemic continues to grow, we have more facilities sign up. We have multiple sessions every day and need all the help that we can get,” she said.
The commitment is minimal. Each virtual visit is 30 minutes, and volunteers can sign up once a week or multiple times if they choose. Facilities can also sign up for multiple visits.
The Pets Together program gives Purks a way to “give back” during the pandemic.
Cali is not a therapy dog, and doesn’t do animal tricks or wear funny hats, like a lot of the other pets. But she’s tiny, and that’s a curiosity. Often, viewers will ask how much she weighs (7 pounds, says Purks).
“Every once in a while, Cali is just sacked out while it’s going on. You never know what you’re going to get,” Purks said.
“There are a lot of people going through challenging times, and if Cali and I can be of service during this, then that does us good, too,” she added.
Using live video-conferencing platforms (Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts), the Animal Farm Foundation team will schedule real-time visits where people can watch the animals and participate in friendly conversations with those who care for them.
The Pets Together model greatly expands access to pet visits that have traditionally been reserved for face-to-face interactions for people living in group settings (such as nursing homes and hospitals)