Pets: the Secret Weapon of Caregivers for the Elderly
Fort he first eight years of my life we didn’t have a pet in our house. Then one day this stray dog showed up and he wouldn’t leave. He followed me around, ran circles in the front yard chasing his tail, and was so energetic I named him “Pepsi” after my favorite soft drink. I convinced my mom that we needed a dog. I had to have her on my side before my dad came home so she cold soften him up for me. It worked. We got to keep the dog.
Two years later I went to a church bazaar where there was a box of kittens. I had to have one. I took it home, named him “Boots” and once again had to figure out a way to keep this new pet. Pepsi liked him, the other kids liked him, my mother liked him, but she told me I had to convince my dad. UGH! Dad was painting the outside of our house that day. First time I asked he said “NO!”. The second time I asked he gave me the same answer, but this time I turned on the tears. I stayed inside where he couldn’t swat me and cried my eyes out. The third time I asked he grumbled, then raised his voice that I would be solely responsible for both animals, and acquiesced. I dried my tears, convinced mom to take me to the store to buy a litter box and cat food and I felt our family was now complete-two parents, four kids, a dog, and a cat.
Why am I telling you this story? Well, actually the story centers around my grandmother and the two pets. We called her “Nanny” and she visited with us every Sunday afternoon. She didn’t have any pets, but when she came to our house she always brought a treat for the dog, and a toy for the cat. The cat ignored her, but the dog adored her. We weren’t allowed to have the dog in the living room on the carpet, but Nanny would just pick him up, walk up into the living room with him and set him on her lap. If my mother made a fuss Nanny would just say, “He’s not on the carpet and he gives me pleasure.”. That was the end of the discussion.
Years later when Nanny was in a nursing home because she’d had a number of strokes I’d take my children to visit her at least once a month. We’d drive from New York City to Maryland. We’d arrive to find Nanny sitting in a Gerrie Chair with a small dog or a cat perched in her lap. This was her solace, her meaning in life at that time. She couldn’t communicate very well, and she didn’t have much enjoyment, but those animals gave her peace and comfort. Many of the other residents of the nursing home took solace in petting the live-in cats and dogs as well.
When I became a nurse I visited patients in a number of settings. Those who lived in their own homes often had a dog or cat. When asked what they found most enjoyable these patients would often answer that having their pet made them feel less lonely. Other times they’d say that the love they shared with their pets was like holding a baby or feeling love that had no strings attached. Never once did I hear a patient say they wished they could find a different home for their pet. Many expressed concern about what would happen to their pets if they passed on. I always advised them to make plans in that regard, but that’s the topic of another post.
Currently, in the small town where I live there is a nursing home. Pets from the local animal shelter visit the residents regularly and the visits are highly anticipated. Once a month a miniature horse named Tater Tot is driven to the nursing home and he is greatly admired. Tater Tot is somewhat of a celebrity in the town and is featured in parades and ribbon cuttings, but his greatest fans are the residents of the nursing home. I asked the daughter of one resident what the appeal was for this miniature horse who came to visit her mother. I was told that most of the men and women in the nursing home were raised on local ranches and grew up riding horses, winning buckles in rodeos, or trying out for a place in the rodeo queen’s court. Having a horse come to visit reminded them of their glory days and all the wonderful times they had on horseback.
It’s not uncommon for a nursing home or assisted living facility to have one or more animals that live on site. Some facilities now even allow residents to have their own pets in their rooms. Physical therapists working with the elderly use dogs, small horses, and sometimes sheep as part of their rehabilitation routines in some locations. Cats and rabbits have been used in mental health therapy sessions to assist in keeping a patient calm and focused on something soft and cuddly.
Animals that are part of these programs often receive special training, but they all seem to know that their presence is appreciated and helpful. Watching an elderly gentleman gently and rhythmically stroke the cat sitting on his lap you can see the joy in his eyes and the returned affection in the eyes of the cat as she licks his hand.
Claudia had weekly appointments for chemotherapy treatment. She would walk the two blocks from her assisted living apartment to the chemotherapy center with Maisie, one of the dogs from her facility. The two of them could be seen slowly making their way down the street. When Claudia arrived at the center she would be shown to her room. Maisie would wait patiently outside the door while the nurses accessed the IV port and started the chemotherapy. Once Claudia was comfortable Maisie was welcomed into the room. She would sit there at this Claudia’s side for four hours as she received her treatments. When Claudia’s treatments were done the van from the facility would pick them up and take them back home. Maisie would then spend the night in Claudia’s room to keep her company. There was a strong bond between Claudia and Maisie. One could see it just by looking how they leaned into each other as they walked down the street, or the open eagerness in Maisie’s eyes as she was allowed into the chemotherapy treatment room after being separated from Claudia for just a few minutes.
The bond between humans and animals can be wonderful and healing. We may never know the reasons why, but we can see evidence of the comfort, love, and acceptance every day if we look in the right places.
Do you have a story of a special bond between a pet and someone you love? Feel free to share. These stories are uplifting for all of us and appeal to our softer side. Thank you to those who have allowed me to share your stories.