Seniors and Their Pets
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In early 2019, I was in the first year of my retirement as a photographer and writer for an agency of the City of New York. As I was coming to terms with my retirement and the changes that it had brought in my life, as well as facing the issues of getting older and what I wanted to accomplish as an artist, I got the idea for a project that would touch on several of those aspects. I would document older people (over 65) in New York City and the animals that kept them company. My thought behind this project was that, with the ending of careers and relationships, and often with lessening of mobility, pets take on more central roles in people’s lives.
I had “retired” from digital photography, which I used during the years I worked for the city, and went back to my roots with mechanical cameras and black and white film. So, I decided that my project would be done with those traditional techniques, rather than with digital, and I would give each of my “customers” a darkroom-processed 8×10 photo by way of saying thank-you.
The first obstacle was finding subjects. I started with my social orbit, and put out feelers for willing participants. I got a half-dozen people who were willing to be photographed, so after about a month I had the start of a project and work that I could show as examples. Then I contacted a number of NYC organizations that provide services for pet owners, as well as those that serve seniors. Most of those organizations either weren’t interested or didn’t have the resources to support a project like the one I envisioned.
Two senior-serving agencies saw the value of what I wanted to do and were willing to help. The larger of them was DOROT, an agency on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, whose work with seniors I had known about for years, and their social work and marketing people were immediately receptive to my ideas. After “vetting” me, they put together a list of seniors and pets that would be amenable to having me photograph them.
Over the nearly year that I visited and photographed, I got a sense of how important these animals were in my subjects’ lives. For many, especially the isolated seniors, their animal companions represented a focus in their lives and a living creature that gave them love and was dependent on them for care. Others were active seniors, who were constantly out and about with their pets. While most of them had cats and smallish dogs, I did find rabbits, birds, fish and a Bearded Dragon lizard. I had hoped for reptiles, but was never able to find any/none ever came my way. My Seniors and Pets project gave me a deeper appreciation of how important non-human companions become to people as they age, and I’m glad that I was able to show these human-animal bonds.