12/7/2021 | By Seniors Guide Staff

by Margit Novack

In “Caregiving,” a chapter in Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life, author and professional senior move manager Margit Novack explores lessons on caregiving from aging pets.

According to psychotherapist Maud Purcell, adult children are unprepared for the roller coaster of emotions they experience as their parents age. Those who view their parents’ lives as characterized by perva¬sive loss have an especially hard time.’

One day I overheard a conversation.

“How are your parents doing?” one asked.

“Oh, you know, they’re deteriorating,” said the other.

That’s it? I thought. That’s how she sums up her parents … they’re deteriorating? What about “They’re facing some challenges, but they’re coping,” or “They’re declining and struggling to maintain their independence,” or “All things considered, they’re pretty resilient.” Almost anything was better than reducing her parents to a short description of passive diminishment – they’re deteriorating.

And that’s when I thought about my dog.

Lessons on caregiving from Poppy and Tiger

Poppy is an old dog, very old for a greyhound. Her regal face is mostly white, and her deep brown eyes that once reached into your soul when she stared at you are clouded with cataracts. The muscles in her once-powerful hind legs are atrophied. That, combined with arthritis, makes transitions from surfaces difficult for her. Often she needs help getting into bed, steadying herself on stairs, or getting up from a nap. She has lost weight, so her ribs are prominent, even for a greyhound. Her coat sheds constantly. Her failing kidneys cause her to drink more, and this in turn results in numerous accidents in the house since she can’t move fast enough to get outside. She takes a long time to respond to simple commands, like “come,” which we attribute to a combination of slower mental processing speed, hearing impairment, and mobility issues. She sleeps most of the day and tires quickly. Although we care for Poppy, we get little back from her compared to the funny, affectionate dog she once was. We don’t ask her to be who she once was, because we are okay with who she is now. If asked how Poppy is doing, I would say, “Poppy is an old dog, but she’s doing great.” I would never say, “She’s deteriorating.”

Similarly, we had no sadness caring for Tiger, our twenty-one-year-old cat. When we noticed physical changes in Tiger, we implemented a series of aging-in-place modifications so he could remain independent and injury-free. These included a three-step pet ladder, so Tiger could get on and off my husband’s chair. When Tiger could no longer navigate the five-inch-high walls of the litter box, we cut a new entrance into it with a one-inch-high lip. We built steps into our sunroom so Tiger could continue going outside, and brushed him daily when he could no longer groom himself. When failing kidneys caused him to drink large quantities of water, we changed the litter box daily and spread paper around it, because he often missed the box entirely. We weren’t just concerned for Tiger’s independence; we were concerned for his dignity.

Book cover for ‘Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life’

My husband asked if I would take as good care of him when he aged. We laughed, but it gave me pause. Why is it so much easier to care for beloved pets as they age than for beloved people? The physical tasks we performed for Tiger and Poppy were unglamorous and sometimes distasteful, but they were not an unwelcome burden. We were not angry, frustrated, or resentful, yet people often express these feelings when caring for elderly family members. Aging pets bring out the best in us. We are caring, compassionate, resilient, and resourceful. We accept aging pets for who they are and are not saddened by how changed they are from their younger selves. Mostly, we experience joy in their existence and are happy for every day we have with them.

Caregiving for elderly family members is rocky terrain, but there is opportunity for richness and rewarding experiences as well. Maybe old dogs can teach us new tricks after all.

When I age, I want to be like Tiger. I want to be as independent as possible and live in an environment that maximizes my dignity and minimizes my impairments. I want to be surrounded by people who accept me for who I am, even though I am different from who I once was. I want a good quality of life, where I can continue to do the things that are important to me. And like Tiger, I want to give love as well as receive it.

Click here to read the Seniors Guide review of Squint. Or for more wisdom like “Caregiving,” lessons on caregiving from aging pets, order your copy of Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life by Margit Novack.

Seniors Guide Staff

Seniors Guide has been addressing traditional topics and upcoming trends in the senior living industry since 1999. We strive to educate seniors and their loved ones in an approachable manner, and aim to provide them with the right information to make the best decisions possible.

Seniors Guide Staff