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Pets and Aging Adults

Aging Life Care Specialists look beyond the typical definitions of family support system, recognizing that pets often bring their client needed love and companionship. For many aging adults, pets reduce stress, lessen loneliness, and often give one a sense of purpose. As one Aging Life Care Specialist shares, pets need to be considered in the overall assessment process.

A Client, a Cat, and  a Care Manager

by Miriam Zucker, MSW, ACSW, CASWCM – Aging Life Care Association™ Member

 

When Aging Life Care Specialists™ begin working with new clients, we perform a thorough client assessment. Many questions are asked and information gathered such as full medication lists, names of physicians, and health care directives. Aging Life Care Specialists also look at a client’s support system – family, friends, caregivers. Pets also fall into this category of support system.

Why pets? Some of the reasons are obvious. When I assist in the placement of a caregiver in the home, it is important to know about pets because some aides are allergic or fearful of animals. Or, if I am recommending the aging adult move to assisted living, we look only at residences that accept pets.

Other reasons aren’t so obvious, especially to those that are not “pet people” or “animal lovers.” For many, a longtime pet is their “significant other” and companion. This was certainly the case with my client Peggy.

Peggy and her caregiver, Joanne, were pet lovers. Joanne was devoted to Peggy and Peggy’s cat, Buttons. Joanne was unfazed by the challenge that comes with having a client who thinks there is nothing wrong with herself despite a mid-stage dementia diagnosis.

One early afternoon Joanne gave me – Peggy’s Aging Life Care Specialist – a phone call. In a quivering whisper, Joanne said “Button’s is dead. She’s lying under Peggy’s chair, and Peggy is telling me she’s sleeping.”

An immediate plan had to be put into place.  A few minutes later, I called Joanne back, explained my plan, and casually stopped by Peggy’s house.

I greeted Peggy, Joanne, and Buttons. I went over to Buttons, called his name, and gently nudged him. Of course, there was no response. I turned to Peggy and said, “I think something is wrong with Buttons, he’s not responding.”

“It’s hot,” Peggy said. “He’s just sleeping.”  And then Joanne repeated the same routine. Only this time Joanne turned to Peggy and said she thought Buttons had passed away.

Joanne gently placed Buttons on a towel and slowly pulled the towel out from under the chair. Peggy observed quietly and then became tearful when she realized she had lost her best friend. Peggy asked to hold Buttons. She stroked him, spoke to him lovingly, and then handed Buttons to me.

Peggy decided that Buttons should be buried in her backyard between two lilac bushes. The welcome sound of a lawn being mowed sent me across the street to ask the gardener if he would dig a hole. With the hole dug, Peggy, holding Joanne’s arm, slowly made her way down the backyard steps. I followed with Buttons.

Peggy watched as I placed Buttons in his eternal resting place. I asked her if there were any words she wanted to say or a song we could all sing? Nothing. We came back to the house, and as others do at a time of mourning, we reminisced about Buttons — his place on Peggy’s bed…the paw he would raise when he wanted a treat. It all felt right.

Buttons was soon replaced with a new Buttons. The benefit, if there was one, of Peggy’s dementia is that she forgot that there was ever any other Buttons. But for this Aging Life Care Specialist, all was not forgotten. I was reminded that the definition of “family” has many meanings, all of which we must explore and respect. And when we are with our clients at the end of life, the process of mourning is equally important for a family member with four legs, whiskers, and answers to the name Buttons.

About the author: Miriam Zucker, LMSW, C-ASWCM is an Aging Life Care Specialist. She is the founder of Directions in Aging, based in Westchester County, New York. Her only pets have been goldfish won at carnivals.

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