A Few Stories About Pets for Aging Parents and Elderly Clients
Back to our theme for July regarding pets and your aging parents or elderly clients. Do you have pets? Do your parents have pets? Do your elderly clients have pets? What kind of interactions have you seen? Anything miraculous?
I’ve had experiences with patients and family members where pets actually saved lives, helped individuals heal after acute illnesses, encouraged good habits in building distasteful lifestyle changes, and offered solace after the loss of a loved one. Most of the experiences have involved dogs, some with cats, and a couple with birds. I’m going to venture to say that we have no clue how pets understand our emotions, but just look into the eyes of a pet and feel the love!
The stories below include real people and their pets. All names have been changed, but the stories were used with permission of either the individual themselves or their families.
Jessie was diagnosed with MS just after her 43rd birthday. Within the space of two months her husband had been diagnosed with a chronic disease, she’d become partially paralyzed, the family dog had to be put to sleep, and she and her four children drove across he country with the family cat to a new home. By the end of the year her husband had died and she was left to raise four teenagers on her own as her body betrayed her.
Animals were one of Jessie’s passions. She would have her daughter take her to the animal shelter. Inevitably, a new pet would be added to the home after such a trip. Sometimes it was a cat, other times it was a dog. It got so the kids dreaded her request to go to the shelter because they knew she couldn’t leave without at least one animal. With the help of her pets (children and doctors assisted as well 😉 Jessie eventually regained full use of all her limbs.
Once the children were grown and had left home Jessie’s menagerie had dwindled to one dog and a cat. The dog, was a large golden retriever and had to be walked twice a day since the rest of his time was spent on a small enclosed patio. Jessie religiously walked him and attributed her ability to overcome periods of stiffness and pain from her MS to her daily walks with the dog. For the remaining 30 years of her life Jessie walked a dog twice a day, every day always stating that her animals saved her life and gave her the ability to keep using her legs.
Having a pet requires dedication and the ability to care for it. Jessie lived with significant pain, but her loyalty and devotion to her dog helped her fight her way through that pain and gave her a reason to get out of bed every morning and move.
Whiskers, the cat, was owned by Abner, an elderly gentleman who lived alone and had insulin dependent diabetes. He was able to self inject his insulin but required the services of a neighbor to come over once a week to pre-fill the syringes for him since his eyesight wasn’t so good. Occasionally Abner would forget to do his evening insulin. This would happen usually after a day that was out of the ordinary for him–outings to a new location, visits from multiple family members, or a special event that wore him out.
Luckily, Abner had Whiskers, and somehow the cat always knew when Abner’s blood sugar was too high from missing his insulin dose. Whiskers would jump into Abner’s lap on these occasions and pester him. She might knead her de-clawed paws gently into his jeans or sit there meowing loudly at him instead of her usual soft throaty purr. Once she even got on his shoulders and batted him across the back of the head until he paid attention. After gaining his attention Whisker’s would walk to the refrigerator and meow loudly, as she paced back and forth, until Abner came in and took his insulin. In all likelihood she saved him from a diabetic coma on more than one occasion.
How do pets know when something is wrong with their human companions? There are many theories, but there are just as many phenomenal stories that have no real explanation. The final story I’ll put in this post is about a bird. Some types of birds are known to speak and have been trained (parrots, parakeets, and probably others). This story has an interesting twist to it.
Betty and Charlie were an elderly couple living in a small rural farmhouse on the outside of town. One afternoon a bird flew into the large kitchen window as Betty sat at the kitchen table deciding what she’d fix for supper. It was getting increasingly hard for her to focus on simple tasks and Charlie often had to remind her of what she’d been doing. When she heard the bird hit the window she got up from the table and made her way slowly outside to see if there was anything she could do.
The bird had a broken wing, but otherwise seemed fine. Betty got a box, took the bird into the kitchen, then went out to the barn to see if the old birdcage was still in the corner after years of non-use. Returning to the kitchen as Charlie was heading in from the chicken pen she told him about the bird. The two of them set the wing using popsicle sticks and bandage tape, dug up some worms from the garden, put a small dish of water in the cage then gently set the bird into the cage and made small steps out of cardboard so it could hop up and down from the perch as it pleased to get food and water.
Neither Charlie nor Betty felt the bird would last for long–it was a male robin, but they wanted to give it a chance and when they went to bed that night they prayed that the bird would heal and live if the Lord desired.
Next morning Charlie was in the kitchen at daylight and was pleased to see the bird was still alive. When Betty came down to make breakfast Charlie reminded her to take her pills. Betty had three pills to take every morning, but unless Charlie reminded her she often forgot. The bird looked on with curious eyes, but didn’t display any sound or movement while they were in the room.
Over the course of the next few weeks Betty and Charlie followed the same routine every morning with the bird watching. It’s wing wasn’t ever going to be able to be useful to it again so they decided to keep it in the cage rather than set it free outside where a barn cat or other predator might find it and end it’s life. Summer turned into fall and Charlie suffered a fatal heart attack. Betty was heartbroken. Their children came to the funeral and tried to convince Betty that she needed to move in with one of them since her memory was not so good.
Betty refused. She was determined to stay right where she was for as long as possible. The day after Charlie’s death she went down into the kitchen and forgot to take her pills. Her oldest daughter was sitting at the kitchen table, but Betty wouldn’t let her help with the breakfast preparations. As she pulled bread and eggs from the refrigerator Betty heard a scratchy voice say “Don’t forget your pills, Betty.” She turned around expecting to see Charlie standing in the doorway. Instead her daughter was staring in amazement at the male robin in the cage. The words were uttered haltingly, but had come from the bird.
Next morning the visiting nurse came to check on Betty and was sitting in the kitchen and she heard the amazing words from the robin’s beak. Robins don’t talk she said. Betty shook her head and took her pills. She didn’t have an explanation. Every morning for the next week the bird reminded Betty to take her pills. It never spoke another word during those days, but had the intonation and the wording exactly as Charlie had said it every morning. The nurse heard it and Betty’s daughter heard it.
Betty stayed on it that farmhouse until her passing just a few days before Christmas. Every morning the bird reminded her to take her pills. The nurse heard it a number of times of additional visits and no one wanted to believe it, but Betty’s pillbox was being used exactly as it should. The amazing point to this story is that the bird wasn’t a parakeet or a parrot. It was an ordinary robin.
I don’t have an explanation and neither does anyone else as to how a robin learned to talk, but that robin gave Betty the freedom to stay in her home until her death. A few days after Betty’s death the robin was taken to the oldest daughter’s house where he had a place on a table looking out a large window. No one ever heard the bird say another word, but he had spoken when he needed to in order to remind Betty to take her pills.
As amazing as these stories are there are hundreds more of how animals and pets contributed to the well-being of their owners. If you missed last Wednesday’s post by Barbara Techel about her amazing dog in a wheel chair please check it out in the archives. In my next post I’ll talk about Tater Tot and some other amazing animals. Do you have a story to share? I’d love to hear from you.