Friday was Murphy’s 9th birthday. Well, that’s the day we’ve chosen to celebrate. With rescue dogs, details like date of birth remain a mystery. Murphy could actually be 7 or 11 or any age in that range. Rescue animals reinforce the idea that age is just a number.
Murphy received yummy treats and a giant stuffed gator toy.
I’m excited to announce that I have written a children’s book, Slow Dog. I never expected to write a book for kids, but my rescue dog Murphy inspired me to take the leap.
Sometimes it’s rewarding to step outside of our comfort zone and look at life from a different perspective. When I adopted my senior mixed breed dog Murphy, I knew one of the challenges for me would be to adjust my fast-paced life to his decidedly slow-paced one. It was a deliberate choice as I knew it would benefit my overall well-being.
While Slow Dog doesn’t have any specific ties to dementia, it does celebrate moving at one’s own pace. That’s a helpful lesson for all caregivers.
I’ve written before on this blog about having a keen interest in studies that involve dementia, Alzheimer’s and overall cognitive health, while also maintaining a healthy skepticism. This week a preliminary study about how having a pet could benefit cognitive health made the rounds on social media. Those of us who are pet owners know how much love and joy they can bring to our lives. But it’s also important to understand and be able to manage the challenging moments as they age and develop health issues of their own.
The study found that those who had owned pets for five or more years were able to delay cognitive decline by 1.2 points vs. those in the study who did not have pets over a six-year period. The study analyzed cognitive data of more than 1,300 adults age 50 or over. While researchers were only able to establish an association, not a cause and effect with this study, the findings support prior research in this area.
Pets offer loyal companionship and keep us on a routine. Dog ownership encourages daily walks, and regular exercise has been demonstrated to have cognitive benefits. By just being their unique and adorable selves, pets can offer us moments of joy that help relieve stress and lift our spirits. As a society, we should do everything we can to make sure elders and those with health issues have the support they need to keep their beloved pets with them, whether its at home or in a residential facility.
I cannot imagine my life without my pets, but I also accept the considerable responsibility that I have in maintaining their well-being. If you have elder loved ones with pets, check on them to make sure that there are no care issues that need to be addressed.
This week, I had to say goodbye to my rescue dog, Magee. I cared for him just shy of two years. They were challenging but rewarding years. He had been abandoned by his former owners at a boarding facility so his past was unknown, but he had health issues that were difficult to identify. We made great strides in securing a diagnosis (leishmaniasis) and just beginning treatment for this rare (in the U.S.) parasitic condition when out of the blue, cancer struck. A very aggressive tumor began growing on his eyelid, and in just weeks, was bulging across half his lower eye, bleeding and causing him great discomfort. It was confirmed to be melanoma. Removing the eye was an option, but melanoma, especially as aggressive as this was, typically comes back soon.
Putting a dog like Magee through major surgery and the required aftercare would not have been a good quality of life for him, as he had an anxiety behavior in which he would attack himself when he became stressed out. After his last vet visit, he experienced one of the worst episodes I’ve seen since I adopted him. This behavior continued over the ensuing days. (He had been on various medications to address his anxiety but none had worked well.) To put him through so much stress to buy a short amount of time before the cancer likely came raging back … it was an extremely difficult choice but I opted not to let his suffering continue.
I thought about my father, and how his dementia made him a poor candidate for recovery from surgery. He couldn’t understand that he needed to eat even if he wasn’t hungry to regain his strength and that he needed to follow the instructions of the physical therapist to get safely out of bed and walk. Instead he wasted away and became bedridden. My mother had a slow, grueling recovery from her cancer surgery, only to have it come back about a year and a half later. As caregivers know, rarely does a major procedure go off without a hitch. In my mother’s case the complications (blood clots) were life-threatening and required multiple medical interventions.
As I champion for people, quality of life is important for pets as well. It’s tricky because animals tend to be willing to put up with a lot more than people are, and our pets seem to focus on the happy moments. Dogs especially would live with us forever if they could. They trust us with all of their heart to make the right decision for them and we have to trust ourselves in the same way.
I never expected to have to say goodbye to two pets during this most difficult of years. Before Magee’s passing, I had began a new writing project, collecting the various things I’ve written about the pets I’ve had and my experience fostering dogs. Being a caregiver for animals can be just as intense as it is with humans, and I want to share my experience with those who also are grieving the loss of their beloved pets and agonizing over the medical care choices they made for them. What we see on social media, the smiling photos and the happy updates, are just one part of the story. Caring for a pet with health issues can be exhausting, frustrating, and depressing. It can also be rewarding and teach us valuable life lessons. If we could love ourselves the way our dogs love us, the world would be a better place.
Birthdays are bittersweet for me now, as I have fond memories of my parents singing “Happy Birthday” to me across the miles each year. They would rehearse and make a big production out of it. Even as my father descended into the depths of dementia, he rallied for the birthday performance.
I’ve been fostering dogs for the last several months, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile. It has been a rewarding and enriching experience. While I enjoy fostering, my eye (and heart) was always on the lookout for “the one.”
And now, as a birthday gift to myself, I am adopting my latest foster dog, Magee. He is a sweet rat terrier/fox terrier mix that has proven to be a good fit in my life. (The cats disagree, but I overruled them, haha.)
Like me, Magee is middle aged or so and has a few personality quirks, but is overall a dedicated and loyal companion. Unlike me, Magee overflows with happiness and dare I say … joy. Anyone who spends time with dogs know there is much we can learn and gain from them.
As we grow older, we learn that the simplest pleasures are often the most rewarding. I now have Magee to guide me on that exploration of everyday joy.