Can Pet Therapy Be An Asset In Dementia Care?

Tonya_window  Mom

Should caregivers consider having a pet in the house for their loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia? I would guess that many factors figure into the answer to that question, such as does the caregiver like animals, does the patient like animals, can their house accommodate a pet, will they have enough time to devote to the pet? So many things to consider when making this decision because taking on a pet is basically bringing in another family member. They will need to be fed, cleaned, possibly walked. They will need shots and vet care periodically and of course lots of attention. It’s a big decision for anyone and compounded with dementia care.

In the case of my mother, Eleanor, she was never a huge animal lover, although she had a daughter, myself, who absolutely loved animals. I’ve wanted a dog since the first time I had ever laid eyes on one. It wasn’t to be as I was growing up but I was able to have parakeets and turtles…things that could be in a cage. Needless to say, when I left home, the first thing that I did was get a dog, first a Great Dane named Hannibal, a year later a 3 lb. Chihuahua named Tinker-belle aka Stinky…and then later, another Great Dane named Kwincy. You can read about Hannibal, Kwincy and Stinky here:

stinky Hannibal 1It was probably the happiest time of my life as I remember it. Of course the kids had lots of other animals over the years, but our house always had a dog. As the years went on, they of course passed away…when the last one, the Chihuahua named Stinky finally passed, I was so crushed that the family talked me into taking on 2 new Chihuahua puppies, Daisy and Peanut. Not sure I was ready to start over, but I did it anyway and it turned out to be a very wise decision. They were with me for many years, through thick and thin, with one still alive by the time my mother finally came to live with me.

When Mom came, she was already in the throws of dementia, although I didn’t realize it right away. After awhile however, it was very apparent, although she was at the beginning of the disease and was able to stay at home during the day when I went to work. She was not a danger to herself at that point. She functioned well, although was recuperating from a broken hip and was a little paranoid and forgetful. When I left for work, I was usually gone from the house for 12 hour stretches, having 2 hours of commuting time. It was a long day for Mom and for myself. Daisy was there with her during the day and they formed a close bond. Daisy was very respectful about not invading her space, which was a relief. They were 2 old girls being respectful of each other and coming to depend on each other at the same time. My mother enjoyed her company and didn’t feel alone in the house, and Daisy looked forward to the little treats that Mom would give her during the day…and also being let out back at mid-day. It was a really perfect situation, in that they helped to solve issues on both sides.

Hanni_kwincy Photos: Top: (1) Tonya laying in the sun on her chair in the window, (2) Mom looking happy and healthy, (3) Hannibal looking very regal, (4) Stinky the Chihuahua at 14 years old, Right: (5) Hannibal and Kwincy lounging outside, (6) Mom and Tonya

Finally, Daisy passed away at home, at 14 years old. My mother didn’t realize it since she was in bed, still sleeping when I woke up that morning. Of course, I had to tell her…and she was crushed. She made a sound that I will never forget, a sound of complete hurt and loss. She started to cry and was sad for a long time afterwards. I framed a nice big picture of Daisy and put it in her room to remember her by. It helped to keep Daisy alive in her mind. About a year, maybe a year and a half later, I bought a few parakeets to bring some sound and life into the house…and that it did. Parakeets are very noisy little birds and fascinating to watch. I kept them in the kitchen, which is where my mother loved to hang out during the day. I can remember that she would spend hours in front of the cage just whistling at them trying to get them to chirp back, which they would accommodate. I could tell that their presence changed Mom’s behavior, in that she perked up from the void that Daisy had left in the house.

About two years after that, I ran into a rescue truck at the local pet store and fell in love with a terrier mix that American Airlines had flown in from California. Her name was Tonya and before I knew it, I had brought home a little girl who needed rescuing. I wasn’t sure at all how this would work out because Tonya wasn’t used to us yet and if the door was opened, she would dart out running as fast as a Greyhound. That in itself made me a little nervous, but in the long run, it all worked out. After while, Tonya became very close with Mom since they were home together all day long. Just as with Daisy, Mom would give her little treats during the day and they would become inseparable. It wasn’t too long after that when Mom started to decline in her dementia, needing a home health aide. Once Cardine, her aide came aboard, Tonya got attached to her also, but would forever be Mom’s protector with anyone new who came into the house.

Mom_Tonya1Tonya knew when Mom was declining and protected her even more so, laying by her bed all day, sleeping under her bed. After about a year, when hospice came in, Tonya knew exactly what was happening at the moment of her death. Dogs are very aware and in tune with things like that. She cried when it was actually happening. From then on, she slept alone in her room for weeks. I didn’t know until later how lonely my mother was, until I found some journals that she had written after Daisy died. She wrote a draft letter to her best friend Noreen about how lonely she was after Daisy died but felt better when the birds came, because it brought life into the house and we all knew that she loved Tonya as well.

Bottom line for my situation is that having pets in the house was a great thing for my mother. There was no debating about me going to work every day…we needed a paycheck. So, having pets helped to fill the void in her day and gave her someone to look after, giving her a purpose. I think everyone’s situation is unique and different, so a decision should be made on that basis. But in the end, I’m a fan of having pets in the house when caring for a dementia or Alzheimer’s patient.

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Isn’t Having Dementia Enough?

shad_mom    shad_lynn

The above pictures are (1) of my son Shad with Mom back in the 80’s. (2) Shad and myself, also in the 80’s.

It’s been an eventful few weeks at my house. My son, Shad visited for the first time in a very long time. He hasn’t seen my Mom, literally in years with her living in CA and he in NC. I also have not seen him for a long time, so it was a very welcomed visit. Life responsibilities just seem to take over our daily routines and before you know it, years have gone by. Not sure why that happens more these days than in years past, but my guess is that today’s world is more complex and complicated. There’s just more to do in our daily routines which leaves little time for what is really important.

With the anticipation and preparation leading up to his visit this past weekend, I had also received a call from Mom’s primary doctor about  recent blood work performed. Apparently, her blood counts were very low and she is drastically anemic. Her red blood cells are “big”. I replied, you mean they are high, but he said no, they are big. He informed me that he would do a folate test which could be the problem, but he doubted that it was the problem. As predicted, the folate test came back normal and he informed me that Mom would need to see a hematologist. He gave me a name of one in our group and I made the appointment.

After seeing him, I was given the same information as her primary doctor gave me, but now he is advising a bone marrow test. I wasn’t at all sure that was a good idea, given her age and mental state but he said that if I didn’t follow through, that I had better get her “do not rescesitate” docs in order. With that, of course, I made the appointment. My son was in for this appointment but she was unable to tolerate taking the test and the doctor decided not to force her, again with her age and mental capacity. We were told that another extensive blood test would be performed to see if a marker could be seen so that he could identify and treat her….otherwise, she will probably need blood transfusions. The bad part of transfusions is that, they will only do them in a hospital and with her weak immune system, it’s almost sure she will get some bacteria while admitted…so it is a lose-lose situation. What to do?

He told me that we are probably looking at Supportive Care, meaning hospice. I can’t help but think that we’ve come all this way, and to lose her to some sort of Leukemia is just wrong. Her sister Lillian succumbed to Leukemia almost 40 years ago but I don’t think it was the same type. Her father was a bleeder, which also leads me to believe that there is some genetic blood disorder prevalent to the Sarter bloodline which can appear at any age. Of course, I am not sure, but it is what I am feeling from what I am seeing at this point in time.

Makes me wonder what kind of a cruel joke is being played on her. Isn’t having dementia enough for her to handle, isn’t having OCD her whole life a heavy enough cross to bare? Will she have to wait until her next time around to have a good life? I wonder. 

Just can’t see the silk lining in this situation. I can’t help but thinking..isn’t having dementia enough in a person’s golden years?


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