Joan Shapleigh, 85, at home with her new cat, Marmalade, in Dover-Foxcroft on Monday. She adopted the cat through the new Furever Friends program. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

DEXTER, Maine — A new adoption program that aims to boost the well-being of seniors who live alone pairs them with cats in need of homes.

Furever Friends, a project created by the Dexter Age Friendly Community, received a $5,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation this summer and launched in October. The program has connected seven area seniors with cats and plans to make more matches.

The felines come from Spirits Place, a cat sanctuary that opened in 2016 and cares for feral and community cats on its 15-acre property in St. Albans.

The program is a unique response to the influx of animals in shelters across Maine, especially as temporary halts on evictions ended and house costs continue to soar, Spirits Place founder Lee Palmer said. Some people can no longer afford to care for their pets and are forced to surrender them, she said.

“Shelters around the state are at capacity,” she said. “People are put on hold or on a waitlist, they get frustrated and abandon their cats on the side of the road or dump them on farms or wherever. We see many sick, starving cats.”

The Furever Friends program, created to provide a companion to both the participating senior and a cat, serves several purposes. It’s meant to enhance the physical and mental health of the pair, as research suggests a cat’s purring calms people and may have healing properties. The program also alleviates a concern that keeps some seniors from adopting — that the cat will be abandoned should the owner become unable to care for them.

“They worry about leaving an animal behind,” said Liz Breault, Abbott Memorial Library director and head of the Dexter Age Friendly group. “It’s such a relief to know that somebody will take care of their cat if anything happens to them.”

That’s where Spirits Place would step in. Not only does it provide the senior with a vetted cat that fits their personality or preferences, but it will take the animal back if they become incapacitated or need to transition to a nursing home, for example, Breault said.

The adoption is free, and grant funds are used to cover basic expenses for pet owners who need help getting started, such as a cat carrier or litter supplies. It can also be used for seniors who want a feline friend but whose housing complexes require a pet deposit, said Breault, who also volunteers at Spirits Place.

Some funds will be set aside to provide an annual check-up with vaccinations for the cat, though organizers are still working through the logistics.

Spirits Place — home to about 200 cats that roam freely, including cats who are not adoptable due to health or socialization issues — also aims to educate the community about the bond between animals and humans, animal welfare and other related topics. It hosts a number of youth programs and collaborates with the library to offer affordable spay and neuter clinics several times a year.

Breault and Palmer have high hopes for the program because they’ve seen the joy that the cats and their new owners have brought each other, they said. Seniors have time to devote to the animals that tend to be more low-maintenance than dogs.

A 96-year-old man chose to adopt because he recently lost his pet and knew he would miss having a cat alongside him in the garden, Palmer said. Sometimes the seniors come in wanting a cat with certain qualities and leave with the total opposite, she said.

“They pick each other,” she said. “We do have in mind a cat that would be a good fit, but we let it happen organically.”

Joan Shapleigh, who resides at an assisted-living complex in Dover-Foxcroft, lost her cairn terrier after 15 and a half years together and wanted a pet that was more manageable. It took Shapleigh, 85, several visits before meeting her new companion with orange fur and light green eyes, who she calls Marmalade or Miss Marmalade.

“They check up on her,” Shapleigh said. “They want to make sure that this is going to work. She sleeps on my bed and jumps on my lap, and she’s just a sweetheart.”

Elizabeth Peltier of Greenville hoped to find a cat that nobody else would adopt, preferably an older female, but ended up adopting a male positive for feline leukemia after he curled into her lap at the shelter. Peltier, 79, tried to change the black cat’s name, Midnight, but it’s all he responds to, so she decided to honor that.

“He’s a good companion, and I can take care of him,” she said, noting he is about 4 years old. “He meets me at the door when I come home. He’s very gentle with things and with me. I went for a couple months without a cat, and it was really empty.”

The Dexter Age Friendly group and Spirits Place are trying to start a food pantry specifically to help seniors who have a good home but limited income that makes feeding a pet challenging, Palmer said. Ideally, a third party would run the pantry and deliver the food, she said.

Furever Friends will refer participants who need financial support to the Furry Friends Food Bank, an Eastern Area Agency on Aging project that helps low-income seniors feed their pets. The food bank has distribution locations throughout Maine, including in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.

Those interested in the adoption program can reach Breault at 207-924-7292 or