Kathy Dowell does not like to spend time apart from her dog, Morty.

"He brings out the best in me," Dowell said.

She adopted the long-haired chihuahua/terrier mix through the Older Adults Pet Adoption program, a joint effort of Prairie View, Caring Hands Humane Society and Wichita State University.

"I couldn't have asked for a better dog," Dowell said.

The program allows those 55 and older to adopt a dog or cat for free from Caring Hands.

"It gives back to the older adults in our community because we offer it for free and don't base it on income. Any adult over the age of 55 is eligible," said Kim Lewis, LMSW and OAPA volunteer coordinator. "It's a great benefit for them and for Caring Hands, too, to increase the adoptions."

OAPA facilitates pet adoptions in Harvey, Marion, McPherson, Sedgwick and Butler counties.

Volunteers in the OAPA program visit with adopters regularly and assist them if there are any difficulties with their pets.

"It's really an awesome team effort where we work together to help the pet and adopter to make sure there's a smooth transition," Lewis said. "We want the adopter to know that the volunteer is there if there's ever a concern."

Volunteers are matched with adopters who live in the same area.

"We're always really wanting to recruit more volunteers and more adopters," Lewis said.

OAPA volunteers interact with the pet so that if an owner becomes unable to care for it, they can take it in if the owner has not designated someone else to do so.

"It was designed for older adults to adopt a pet for free, without having to worry about what happens when they pass away," Lewis said. "This program is like a safety net for them."

Caring for a pet can reduce blood pressure and lower stress levels, Lewis noted.

A pet can also provide emotional support for an individual, especially if they live alone, by responding positively to the owner and giving them the knowledge that they have a responsibility to the animal.

"I think we all sort of have this innate need to take care of someone," said Karen Andres, who is a chaplain at Prairie View and also volunteers with OAPA.

That is the chance Morty affords Dowell, who recently divorced and whose children have moved away.

"I'm really glad I got him, because he's a lifesaver," Dowell said. "I know that he loves me. I know that I'm not alone."

Pet companions can be therapeutic after experiencing a trauma or loss.

"Having a pet can help anyone adjust to a change," Lewis said. "They can be that companion that's there and is happy to be around their owner. It really improves someone's mood. Their mental wellness is the ultimate benefit of having a pet."

Having a pet also encourages owners to get out of the house more, Andres noted.

"Some people will take their pets to the dog park or on a walk," Lewis said. "Waving to other people or feeling like you have a connection to other people through the pet is really beneficial, too."

"You'd be surprised at the people who have stopped and talked to me because of him," Dowell said.

When she is stopped, Dowell tells people about OAPA and how others can take advantage of the program to adopt a pet like Morty.

"He really is the greatest thing that's happened to me," Dowell said. "I love him."

For more information about the Older Adult Pet Adoption Program, or to volunteer in the Newton, Hesston, McPherson, Hillsboro or Wichita areas, call Kim Lewis at 316-284-6330 or Caring Hands Humane Society at 316-283-0839.

Contact Patricia Middleton by email at pmiddleton@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her on Twitter @MacSentinel.