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. And that’s when I thought about my dog.
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 difficult. Often, she needs help getting into bed, steadying herself on stairs, or simply 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 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.
Yet, we are OK with our role as caretakers of a senior dog. Caring for Poppy is neither sad nor frustrating — it simply is.
If asked how she is doing, I would say, “She’s an old dog, but she’s doing great.” I wouldn’t say, “She’s deteriorating.” So why are we so much kinder when we describe elderly pets, than when we describe elderly parents? Why is it so much easier to care for pets we love as they age, than for people?
We see caring for elderly family members as an obligatory, unwelcome burden. We get angry with the physical tasks of caregiving, embarrassed by loved ones’ lack of hygiene, frustrated by their increasing need for support. We are so saddened by the diminution of who they once were, it is hard to accept or take pleasure in who they are now. Yet, we have none of these emotions with our elderly pets.
Recently, I overhead another conversation. A group of siblings were talking about a tiny dog, now 14, with whom they had grown up. “We put up a gate so she doesn’t fall downstairs. She’s incontinent and pees on the rug. She’s lost weight, her hair is thin, she’s lost most of her teeth. But she still plays with her toys and scampers around. She’s a happy little dog.”
We care for our elderly pets with patience and compassion because we remember who they were, and we accept who they are. Although there is loss when animals age, there is not sadness in the caregiving, and there is often joy. Yet human aging is so enmeshed with anger and sadness, it is hard to find joy. It seems we’ve internalized ageism — those of us who are aging and our caregivers as well. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but maybe an old dog can teach us.