Growing Old Alone
A New Late Night Star For Us

A Dog's Tale of Aging Well

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


Comments

Excellent advice.

All I know for sure is that I would hate not having a dog in the house and "cat people" have a right to feel the exact, same way. Both cats and dogs bring benefits to older people and we don't need a study or article to prove that. It's a given that all animal lovers know.

I just read David Dudley's post and this phrase jumped out at me.

"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."

That's the best description of becoming very old that I have heard.

I kid about time to go sit on the ice floe, but there are days when I realize that I am losing more and more ability to carry on simple day by day tasks. Then the ice floe beckons.

I got a 4" inch foam topper for my bed making the bed so high my feet don't touch the floor when I sit on the edge. The past two nights I had to try twice to swing my feet up on the mattress and I wonder if soon I will be enable to get in bed without using a cane to lift up my legs.

Then I had a very frightening experience when I became mentally confused while telling my doctor about a symptom. I don't mind losing my physical ability as long as I can still feed and dress myself without help, but losing my mind is terrifying to me.

Maybe it's time to get a dog.

Excellent piece Ronni. Thanks.

We are at that stage with our 15-year old terrier mix and think each day that it will not be long before we have to take him to "that final trip to the veterinarian".

Those final paragraphs brought both a tear and a smile. My dog and my cat are such big parts of my life, it's hard to imagine being without either. I'm not sure if I've taught them my routine, or vice versa. But we keep each other engaged and active. It's a mutually beneficial, synergistic relationship.

I read this in the AARP magazine and was in tears at the end. I dread the day when my 11-year-old chocolate lab, Maya, is no longer with me.

I'm reading a book called "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein, which is the story of a family told from their dog's point of view. Read it; it's lovely.

A joyous piece.

I've been away from my wife and dog for nearly a month now and, while my wife can easily tolerate (maybe even welcome) my extended absences I know what a strain it is for my dog. Makes me miss them both even more.

Darlene--
You are an inspiration. Truly.

We have two much-loved felines, now approaching 13 Y/O (one may actually be closer to 15--he adopted us, so we aren't sure). We've lost several cats to old age and/or illness during the 37 years we've been married (plus one gorgeous Maine Coon that we believe was "catnapped" by an employee of the painting contractor working in our apartment complex at the time).

I don't even want to think about that "last trip" for either of our lovely and very loveable cats, but now we are also looking for a cat-care plan for THEM if they outlive US!

This was truly a great article find. I have had both cats and dogs all my adult life. As a widow of 9 years, I'd hate to come home without a loved pet to greet me.

I lost two elderly cats last summer (one to kidney failure, the other to cancer)and now have 3 dogs. One of them is around 13 (can't be sure)...and has recently been diagnosed with Cushing's disease. I didn't even know dogs could have that condition, as humans do. At any rate, Oscar (he's a dachshund) is getting some palliative treatment and LOTS of pampering. I don't expect him to live beyond another couple months, and I'm truly going to miss him. I hope as long as I'm able, to have at least one pet. Life would seem empty without those faithful companions, whether feline or canine.

Dogs help us in so many ways ... very inspirational story!

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