An American friend, Jim Stone, who is wintering in New Zealand where it is summer, emailed urging me to read a story he had found with some good advice from our dogs about how to deal with old age.
Before the writer, David Dudley, gets to his personal story, he tells us that science is finding human and canine life to be more intertwined that you (well, me, anyway) might suspect even at the microscopic level:
”Human and canine genes, shaped by the environment we share, are evolving in lockstep. Today, along with home security and leftover disposal, dogs confer a host of wellness benefits, especially to kids and older people.
“People with dogs sleep better, weigh less and get more exercise than dog-free peers. And there are the less tangible perks, the ones cataloged in Marley & Me–style books.
“This burgeoning 'dogoir' literary genre revolves around the reductive but basically correct idea that a dog is foremost an instrument of personal growth: It exists to ease your existential anxieties, impart lessons about love and friendship, and teach you how to be a better person.”
[I don't disagree at all but I believe similar benefits result from human/feline relationships; they just occur on a different kind of psychological plane. But that's for another day.]
The research, Dudley tells us, shows that dogs and humans age in similar ways, including age-related dementia:
”...dogs' plaques look a lot like those in humans — more so than the ones found in our fellow primates. [Neuroscientist Elizabeth] Head is not sure why. 'It could be that living in our environment — our food, our water, our homes — has made dogs more vulnerable,' she says.
“Age-related dementia, in other words, might be 'a feature of the domestication process,' she says, a kind of unintended side effect of civilization.”
For 18 years Mr. Dudley and Foghat shared their lives – the walks, the games, marriage when it arrived and the two children who followed.
”...he entered his dotage in roaring good health...”, writes Dudley. “He was what gerontologists would call a successful ager.
“And then, seemingly overnight, he wasn't...He started limping after a vigorous bouncing-a-soccer-ball-off-his-nose session. Then he needed help climbing into the car or crawling under the bed, his favorite sleeping spot.
“Our epic rambles through the woods became short hikes, then brief spins around the block. Sometimes he'd stop midwalk, frozen like a Parkinson's sufferer. The stairs grew perilous.
“He became a wandering insomniac, barking at ghosts, claws clacking aimlessly through the darkened house. He'd vanished into the shadowlands of canine cognitive dysfunction, and he would not be coming out.”
The last weeks or months of Foghat's life were, for Mr. Dudley,
”...a glimpse into the future. Foghat's senescence appeared as both a comfort and a warning of what awaits: Some fears and eccentricities will lift with the years; others will only deepen. “One by one, the things you love to do become too difficult and slip out of your life. But despite it all, you will still be you, and people will still cherish your wobbly presence. Even a diminished life is worth living on its own terms.”
In due course, however, the terrible day arrived when it was time for the final trip to the veterinarian.
I tell you all this not only because it is a beautiful story of a man and his dog, but because I want to be sure you read his final paragraphs:
”And now that I'm no longer young, and he's dead, I'll do my best to follow the path Foghat blazed into my life's last half. This is sound medical advice, as neuroscientist Head says: 'Everything you do for a dog to help them age well, you should do with them.'
“So eat the best food you can afford. Go for a walk, even if it's raining. Take a lot of naps. Keep your teeth clean and your breath fresh, so that the people you lick will not flinch.
“And when someone you love walks in through the door, even if it happens five times a day, go totally insane with joy.”
I think it will make your day to go read David Dudley's remarkably graceful story at the AARP website. Then give your dog or cat a big hug.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dan Gogerty: At Sea with Rock Hudson and a Drunk Stowaway