In an old trailer at the edge of a cemetery lives a little dog who loves meatloaf.
Scarfs it down with tail wagging and then begs for more.
Therein lies the problem.
The meatloaf isn’t meant for Andy, a 7-year-old schnauzer. It’s for his owner, Jack Patrick, a 73-year-old disabled artist.
But like many senior citizens with pets, Patrick often shared his home-delivered-meal with his dog because he can’t always afford pet food.
“What was I supposed to do — just eat in front of him?” Patrick asked one day last week.
“I can’t do that. He’s my best friend.”
Patrick no longer has to choose. Folks at the Warrensburg Senior Center now include pet food in their version of meals-on-wheels. Every Wednesday, the driver brings a plastic bag of dog food for Andy — a week’s worth — along with Patrick’s hot meal for that day.
The idea is spreading across the country as officials learn more about the prevalence of seniors sharing food with pets. Many simply can’t fit a $20 bag of dog food into a fixed income.
Of nearly 100 meal recipients along six routes in Warrensburg, a fourth or so are pet owners.
“Mostly dogs and cats, but we do have one bird we take food for,” said Melissa Gower, the county services director at the center in Warrensburg.
A program sponsored by Banfield Pet Hospital, an Oregon-based company that operates veterinary clinics in many PetSmart stores, now provides pet food for more than 400 home-delivered meal organizations, including the one in Warrensburg. Another in Hiawatha, Kan., is preparing to add pet food delivery, too.
“If these seniors are giving their meals to pets, they are not getting the proper nutrition for themselves,” said Keith Greene, the chief membership officer for a national meals-on-wheels organization. “So this is a big issue.”
Linda Allen, executive director of Independence Meals on Wheels, did not know of any local agency doing pet food delivery, but she thinks that could change.
“We’ve known for a long time some seniors were giving food to pets,” she said. “So these programs are probably going to grow.”
In Warrensburg, Gower said some seniors share their stories — how they don’t have money or just can’t get out to shop. For many, the pet’s face is the only face they see all day.
“Their mate is gone and the children gone,” Gower said. “But that pet is still at their feet.”
Before heading out on his route one cold day last week, Bill Turnage carefully scanned the sheet in the kitchen at the Warrensburg Senior Center, matching names with the hot meals in a large box.
He took care, too, to read the labels on the three plastic bags of pet food. When satisfied, he announced, “We’re off.”
His Buick was soon rolling through the southeast part of Warrensburg. He didn’t dally. One woman gets testy if her meal doesn’t arrive precisely at noon.
Turnage, who is retired, started doing this when the senior center announced it could no longer pay drivers.
“I saw an ad in the local paper asking for volunteers and thought that was something I could do,” he said as he drove.
Turnage was the longtime sports information director at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. Just when he got used to the new gig, they threw pet food at him.
“That was different,” he said. “But these people really appreciate it. Their pets are so important to them. And given a choice of them eating or the pets eating, some have a hard decision.
“They were surprised when I first showed up with dog food.”
His first “pet stop” was the home of Ramon Lopez. The house is a red ranch in need of paint. Lopez is in a wheelchair from polio. He has two dogs, King and Ginger, both typically hungry.
“Sometimes they beat me to the door,” Lopez said.
The Warrensburg plan was set in motion by Andy Poslusny, 76, a retired Air Force man. He’d heard about seniors sharing meals-on-wheels with their pets, and the more he learned the more he wanted to do something.
“Some have had to give their pets away,” he said. “That’s not right. So we’re helping them out. We even have a cockatiel we take food for.”
Gower said that before grant money from Banfield came in, Poslusny for several months funded the pet food program out of his own pocket.
“Oh, I kicked in a little on that,” Poslusny said.
Good ideas, born in the abstract, at some point need to crunch.
Poslusny’s did just that on the floor in Jack Patrick’s kitchen when Andy went to work on a bowl of dog food.
The little dog is all Patrick has. He’s divorced and the children gone. His friends live elsewhere.
Glaucoma has taken his ability to paint. He has had both hips replaced. He has bad knees and degenerative arthritis.
On cold days he sits in his trailer surrounded by paintings he cannot see. They show sleek Cadillacs and sports cars cruising busy streets lined with bright lights.
“I really don’t have anything or anyone except Andy,” he said. “He came to me as a pup and never left. I don’t want to sound senile, but he’s like my child.”
As much as anyone, Jack Patrick is the reason that senior citizen organizations are increasingly adding pet food to the meals-on-wheels menu.
And Gower had a quick response when asked about critics who think that money for dog food could be better spent.
“I’d say they’re not pet lovers.”
To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.