There are numerous articles written for seniors that suggest caring for a pet may reduce stress and contribute to better health. Purina (in an article on the AARP website) brags that seniors with pets have lower blood pressure and even claim that simply petting an animal can lower ones heart rate. Experts also speculate that people with dogs live longer, because they are forced to walk at least twice a day therefore benefiting from the exercise. But for most of us, pet therapy extends way beyond its apparent clinical advantages.
My miniature schnauzer, Raleigh, and I share a symbiotic relationship; she is dependent on me to keep her healthy and secure, and I am grateful to have a companion who offers unwavering love and loyalty. She comforts me just by being in the same room, and she in turn feels secure knowing I am nearby. I feel needed, yet I receive far more than I give. We share kisses, and she tolerates my hugs. Raleigh is bright and alert, as well as clever and resourceful. She is my friend.
Pets were always an important part of my assisted living families. Cats and dogs were the most popular, but in my community in north Florida, we unexpectedly inherited a parrot. When our parrot-owning resident died, she left Hazel to our care, and although the parrot created somewhat of a nuisance and burdened the staff, our residents liked and enjoyed her. Hazel was a talker and often conversed without discretion. Visitors were amused and charmed by her unfiltered remarks, and despite her bi-polar personality, she became a popular mascot. She appeared to be content, but I have no inclination if Hazel remembered or pined for her original owner.
Cats are wonderful for a group setting such as assisted living. Often arrogant and unfriendly except to their master or mistress, they cause very little fuss when confined to a single apartment. They are not gregarious, and typically remain loyal to their caregivers. I once chased a fugitive cat up three flights of stairs, but for the most part, when I entered the apartment, I only got a glimpse of a tail quickly disappearing underneath the closest sofa.
Our cat owners worshipped their feline friends. One such was Margaret, a lovely lady who had lived with us for only three months when her companion, Lucy, an American Domestic, with a pretty little black and white face disappeared from the veterinarian’s office while boarding. Stupidly, one of the veterinary assistants gave Lucy to the wrong owner. When an unknown gentleman came to claim his cat, he was handed Lucy. It was never determined how the gentleman failed to recognize that the cat was not his was, but Lucy knew immediately. While he was carrying her across the parking lot to his car, Lucy determinedly tugged and twisted her body out from under his arm. Once her paws hit the ground, she hastily scampered off into a nearby group of trees and disappeared.
Margaret returned, eager to see Lucy. She went straight to the clinic. She expected to see the cat she had missed while away, but instead the veterinary technician confessed the tale of Lucy’s fate.
Margaret hibernated while she grieved the loss of her friend. The staff and I visited her apartment frequently, and for over a week the dietary department sent her meals to her apartment. I personally called the clinic praying that the episode was all a huge mistake and that Lucy was hiding somewhere in the kennel, but no, Lucy was indeed lost. Finally, as time began to heal her broken heart, Margaret reunited with her community friends. She spoke of Lucy over and over again, always with sadness and often on the verge of tears. Several weeks went by, and neither Margaret nor I ever expected to see Lucy again.
Then, unexpectedly, the front desk notified me that that I had a call from the guilty veterinarian. Without the least bit of remorse, he told me this story; Lucy refused to go home with the stranger. (Seemed to me, the cat was smarter than the doctor.) After breaking loose, she cleverly hid among the trees behind the vet’s office. During the time she was missing, nearby families in the adjoining neighborhood had been feeding her. She had been living as a stray until that morning when she had been rescued by a concerned young woman and returned. The young woman had presumed from Lucy’s well kempt appearance that she was not a stray, but a lost cat.
I quickly gathered up Margaret and drove her to the clinic to retrieve Lucy. It was a toss up who was happier or more relieved; the resident who had pined for her missing friend, or the cat who had stalwartly survived hoping to be returned to her favorite companion. And then I had a few choice words for the vet, “x$#+!*@#”.
Dogs are also popular with our residents. In some communities there are often rules about size and weight, but in mine I was customarily more concerned about temperament and friendliness. Much of the time medium or larger dogs are calmer and gentler. Several of my residents grumbled when I allowed a giant schnauzer to move in. They said he was too big. Since they could find no other complaint other than his size, I ignored them. The schnauzer was a perfect gentleman, seldom barked, and never approached a resident without an invitation. He was far more docile than the bickering Chihuahuas whose barking could often be heard disturbing the peacefulness of our lobby.
At my community in central Florida Elaine moved in with an overweight, floppy- eared beagle. She was younger than many of our residents, so despite the rambunctiousness of the breed, I was sure Elaine could care for her pet. Besides, Mr. Brown Dog was older, and his drooping belly prevented him from jumping too high or friskily bolting out the front door. A problem did arise when we discovered Mr. Brown Dog was covered with fleas, and those fleas soon took up residence in Elaine’s carpet. I arranged for pest control to remove the fleas from the apartment, but knew it would be useless if Elaine did not remove them from Mr. Brown Dog. Elaine called her son to assist her, but she was brusquely dismissed. Her son refused to take the dog for a flea bath or grooming and alluded to relocating Mr. Brown Dog to the dog pound.
Having owned and loved a dog most of my life, I was horrified. I could not imagine Elaine without her cherished beagle, especially if she thought her son would have him euthanized. I knew I was straying beyond my responsibilities as a director, but I ignored company policy and personally accompanied Mr. Brown Dog to visit my dog Raleigh’s veterinarian. He enjoyed a long overdue flea bath, and his shots were brought up to date. A day later, I returned him to Elaine and a flea free apartment. And yes, we all lived happily ever after.
I continue to encourage pets both for children and seniors. Miss Pepper, my first miniature Schnauzer, raised my son to become a better human being. She taught him both responsibility and compassion. Seniors benefit somewhat differently. At a time when seniors are lonely and often overlooked because their children are busy raising their own children, a pet, oblivious to the frailness of an elderly body or the confusion of an aging mind, can share a warm hug and instill a welcome sense of belonging.
I saw a cartoon on Facebook this week. A psychiatrist is prescribing to his patient stretched out on the provincial office chaise. “Go home and let your dog lick your face. Dog saliva is the most effective antidepressant you can get without a prescription.” I couldn’t have said it better.