There have been many scary experiences in my life. Driving home from the hospital with my first newborn, having my first root canal, and the reality that my 1989 hideous perm was just that: permanent, all come to mind. Yet with time, I mellowed with the knowledge that I can have control over some of those fears. I will never get another perm, and have learned how to get through dental procedures with anesthetics when needed. Regarding children, I have resigned to the fact that I control absolutely nothing, and find myself praying often.
As a house call veterinarian, I have a number of elderly clients that live alone with their pets. Most do not drive. The majority have disabilities or illnesses that vary from chronically debilitating to terminal. Some are blind, and some reside in nursing homes with physical and memory issues. It came as a surprise to me how many 90+ year old women live alone in free standing homes. Many clients are widows and widowers. But, all of them are completely devoted to their pets. Their pets are, more accurately, their lifelines in most circumstances.
To a one, they have described their dog or cat with the same exact sentiment: “I don’t know what I would do without him/her.” Each time I hear them say that, my heart breaks a little. That’s because, frankly, I don’t know what they would do without them either. This is the terrifying part.
It is not to say that I don’t do my absolute best to prevent and treat illness in all my patients. It is no less tragic when a puppy dies, for example. I euthanized a friend’s pet last week, with 5 of her 6 children present. It was emotionally heart wrenching, believe me. But I know that children are resilient. I know that they are planning to adopt another cat soon. I know that my patient was suffering. What is different with my senior clients is that, often, this is the only companion that they will likely speak to or touch, for days or weeks. There are many studies enumerating the benefits of physical touch to our well being. Pets may be a link to a lost loved one, or be the last remaining member of their “family”. I simply MUST help them. Or, in some cases, the dog or cat must outlive the client. I go into their homes, or assisted living facilities, and find it hard to leave, when I know that they have few visitors to stay and talk with them. And to listen to them.
I recently received a voice mail from one of my elderly clients, in which she described through tears, that her dog had been euthanized while she herself was hospitalized. I cried listening to it, and do so now as I write this, trying to imagine her in her home without him to keep her company. So I lay in bed at night, worrying about Edna, Jim, Colette and Virginia, to name a few. To say that they have changed my life in unexpected ways is an understatement. I really do wish I could stay for hours and listen to stories of their husbands and wives while alive, or children. I have newly realized respect and admiration for the social workers that come to simply check in and visit, and do errands for them. To the person who fixed Edna’s eyeglass frames that she had bent while sleeping, you are an angel. She is so grateful for your unsolicited act of kindness, and for what it’s worth, so am I.
This reinforces, though, how important pets can be in our lives, and especially for those of us who are elderly and live alone. After everything I have said, I still firmly believe these people are happier with pets in their lives. I have tried to help adopt out cats and dogs from rescue groups to the elderly or infirmed. It is complicated in that, if a client is very old, there needs to be a contingency plan in place in the event that they are suddenly unable to care for that pet. Thus, extended family also commits to the adoption plan and continued care. I also blogged last year about the animal trust options available, or ways to structure a will, to ensure proper care and financial plans of the pet after you are gone. Please reference it on my blog searching “Pet Trusts” or click on the link:
My hope is that, if you have loved one whom you think would benefit from a pet, it will help guide you and them to find a pet, and a plan for the long term.