A reflection on my volunteer experience at Hope&Help.
Torn between the selfish caprice of wanting a pet, and the grounding sense of responsibility to abstain myself from getting one until my life gained some stability, I decided to look into other options to surround myself with little furry beings.
I found Hope&Help, an organization dedicated to helping both little furries and their human friends. In other words, an NGO for social services and animal welfare. Their goal is a beautiful one: preventing solitude and abandonment by helping people at risk of social exclusion to take care of their pets when they are unable to do so. This way, whether you are a 92-year-old man in a wheelchair, a 50-year-old person who’s life has been a constant struggle against mental illness, or a 70-year-old woman who has been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, you can still keep your best friend.
I often think of how lucky I am to have people I love, and people who love me, even if they’re not always around.
Yes, my mom and my little sister live in Miami, my dad and my older sister live in Madrid, the rest of my family is spread out around Colombia, and my best friends are in Los Angeles, Orlando, Texas, Miami, Amsterdam, Madrid, Mexico… It feels a bit lonely, moving to new cities where I’m constantly meeting new people and getting further away from my core network, my backbone, my roots. But then I think of all the people who, for many reasons, are spending their days completely alone, with a life so voided of emotional support, so quiet, so lonely. No partner to come home to after being away, no sister to cry to when you’re in pain, no friends to hang out with on a sunny day.
Some people, especially those who struggle with mental illness, could never even contemplate these possibilities. Their world is too foreign, too detached, and too big to be compatible with social skills and activities. Others are simply unable to do so in a conventional manner because of their disabilities, such as people who are deaf-mute. However, in my opinion, the most common type of lonely person today is the elderly person. This person might be someone who’s had a wonderful life. Perhaps they fell in love, got married, and had beautiful children. But then the children grew up, they left, and while they started to create a life of their own, the elder’s life begins to slowly vanish. Their life-partner passes away, and they are left all alone. Unfortunately, the response to many of these cases is placing the person in a nursing home, even if they can still take care of themselves. But the “lucky” ones who can still live on their own at least for a little bit longer, often live a lonely life.
While some of them love being away from people, and others long for the presence of another human being, most of them share the common desire of enjoying the company of a little furry friend.
So here I am, with 294+ other volunteers in the city of Barcelona, trying to help lonely people at risk of social exclusion to keep their pets whether they’re able to take care of them or not. If you’re an animal lover, you may think the organization’s values and priorities are questionable. Doesn’t a dog deserve to live in a large space, with a physically active and clear-minded person? The answer is yes. But the reality is much more complex.
Most of these people have been taking care of their animal friend for a long time, and have just recently lost some kind of capacity. Whether they were recently diagnosed with vertigo, Alzheimer’s, or are simply terrified of leaving their house in the middle of a pandemic, the person’s relationship with their pet has been solid and loving for many years before suddenly becoming unable to taking care of their furry friend.
What’s the choice? Would impounding the pets, letting them spend the rest of their lives alone in a cage, barking for a human friend be a better option? I don’t think so.