By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Willow the feline weaved between the legs of friends gathered around a table for a Halloween activity, clad in an orange-and-black "pumpkin" dress only a kitten could — or would — wear.
The 6-month-old dilute tortoiseshell is the first residential pet, not counting fish, of the Grand Traverse Pavilions' adult day care program.
Housed on the third floor of Willow Cottage on the Pavilions Traverse City campus, the daily program attracts eight to 12 community residents as well as those who live in Willow and the Pavilions' two other assisted living cottages.
"She keeps us entertained with her mischief," said Sarah Musser, the program's life enrichment coordinator and a newbie to cat care and behavior. "She's brought a lot of life and excitement."
Willow — the kitten, that is — was acquired in September through a $10,000 Banfield Charitable Trust pet advocacy grant that supports efforts to keep pets and people together.
Though Willow herself was free, the grant helps pay for her food, medical care, litter and other supplies, like the bed and self-feeding and watering containers under one of her favorite windows, said Darlene Schwartz, program manager for the trust.
In exchange, Willow provides companionship for adult day care participants like Annie Carroll, arguably the kitten's most ardent supporter.
"I don't have a cat at home, but I love this cat," said Carroll, of Traverse City, who likes to curl up with Willow to watch TV. "She's comfortable in your arms."
The idea of pets in senior living arrangements isn't new. Tendercare Health Center — Birchwood has several fish, three cats — including Sylvester, or "Sylvie" for short — and a cockatiel named Tweety on its rehab, long-term care and dementia units, said administrator Melissa Slepicka.
"It's definitely rooted in care centers," said Slepicka, adding that residents feed and brush the cats as a way to stay engaged and meet the emotional needs that responsibilities and jobs provide. "People know that's something that's going to help and make it a homelike environment."
Many independent and assisted living facilities allow residents to have their own small pets in their apartments or to receive pet visits.
"When people come to visit mom or dad, they'll bring either their own pet or the resident's pet," said Keith Christopher, owner of French Manor Senior Living. "I had a gentleman just move in who had a little poodle and his daughter brings it in to visit."
But Penny Hanks, director of residential services at Grand Traverse Pavilions, said she isn't aware of other area assisted living facilities with full-time four-legged communal pets. Christopher and officials for Orchard Creek Senior Living and Healthcare said pets aren't allowed at their assisted living facilities, except for visits.
Hanks, whose son, David, donated Willow after his cat brought her home in August, said the kitten already has made an impact in her short time at the Pavilions.
"We have seen emotions and smiles that we didn't see before, and I think that's a positive thing," Hanks said.
"Several of them enjoy holding her and several remember having cats and tell stories about that," said Musser, who feeds the kitten and admits to buying the Halloween outfit. "And some of them love pets in general. They'll be playing a game in middle of the room and she'll go laying in the middle of the game. She has a laser light she chases and she loves playing with yarn. She has several balls of yarn and several Styrofoam balls that she bats around.
"Sometimes people will be in the living room and she'll go up on the couch next to them or walk along the back, so she's interacting well with them. She's usually close by wherever they are, or sometimes on my desk."
After Willow is spayed and declawed in November, Musser said she'll begin to take the kitten around to Hawthorn and Evergreen, the Pavilions' other assisted living cottages, so those residents can enjoy her.
Both cottages have large aquariums that were paid for and stocked by the same grant.
Hanks said the grant also can help low-income residents pay for food and litter for their pets, and even provides dog-walking and other assistance for residents who can no longer physically care for their pets.
"That's the beauty of it," she said. "It's all about keeping pets and people together."