Pets, particularly the furry, four—legged kind, can be a potent daily
vitamin for seniors. They provide round-the-clock companionship and
increased immunity from loneliness, a warm body to snuggle with and talk to, and the vital reward of having a best buddy to care for. Statistically, elders with dogs or cats tend to be healthier, happier, and get more exercise. Especially for seniors who live alone and/or have chronic illnesses, such treasured relationships can be a driving reason for getting out of bed each morning.
A flip side to this harmony, however, often presents itself when a senior becomes caregiver to a chronically or terminally ill pet. Much like the pressures encountered by people providing long—term care for ill/ dying family members, that caregiver stress can pack an even bigger wallop when seniors are already caring for a sick spouse.
In recent years, psychologists and veterinarians have taken note of this pet caregiving dilemma. Recent studies have determined that whether one provides care for a beloved human or precious pet, depression and anxiety, fatigue, and a reduced quality of life, may likely follow.
Sometimes one’s life is a petri dish for writing fodder. Case in point:
I’m a Boomer who, for the last eight years, has been coping with the care- giving responsibilities and worries related to having two ill Chihuahuas. In 2011 my wee brown beauty Shana, developed heart disease and (partial) tracheal collapse. Eventually kidney disease arrived, as did the non-stop seizures that killed her. It was a brutal, complicated journey. She wasn’t “just my dog,” she was my heart’s muse and anchor, the most soulful and sentient pooch I have ever known. When her life ended in 2013 at the age of 12, I felt like part of my world stopped too.
Not long after Shana died, Teddie, my feisty and formerly independent black and tan Chi moved up in line and became attached to me like a Velcro pixie. One day in 2014 I noticed that she was urinating and drinking water excessively. I knew these could be symptoms of diabetes but told myself that the Dog Gods wouldn’t do this to me/us. Soon after, blood tests confirmed she had sky-high blood sugar and would need special care for the rest of her life. To date that diabetic care has included about 3,000 insulin injections (given every 12 hours), special diabetic food, an uncountable number of blood tests and veterinary/emergency/ specialist visits, a life-threatening bout of pancreatitis, and one grand mal seizure due to her blood glucose crashing on Thanksgiving 2017. As Teddie is a very squirmy “shot-time” dog, she requires one person securely holding her body and head as I pull up her neck (or upper back) skin and carefully inject. Hence, I regularly de- pend on the arms of family members, friends, and nearby vet techs — every 12 hours. The sweet girl also has heart disease (often seen in diabetic dogs) and requires three heart meds, given twice daily.
Last week, while contemplating a sadness that has been intermittently hovering over me like a pesky drone, I realized that the 24/7 weight of having sick doggies has taken a toll on me.
That cognitive light went off as I read about pet caregiver stress. I instantly saw how my anxiety, blues, and hypercaloric snack attacks “made sense.” Understandably, I have declined many social activities due to the being a caregiving dog-mother. That can be depressing, too. Another fact: people with ill pets easily max out credit cards. Duh. The financial costs of Teddie’s care over the last four years are a minimum of $10,000. Shana’s was a similar story — but I’ve never regretted the money spent on these dear partners. My only regret with Shana was that I probably allowed modern veterinary medicine to keep her alive longer than I should have. I know this from looking back at painful videos of her toward the end, and I will selflessly keep that in mind with Teddie.
A veterinary tech recently told me that about one-third of pet-caregiving seniors must rehome (or surrender) their pets when the emotional and financial burdens prove too high, and/or, their own health becomes an issue. May that never happen to us. I’m taking steps to insure it won’t — stress management, better self-care, and cutting other expenses, are on the to-do list.
While Teddie occasionally doesn’t feel well, most days she’s a spry and happy pup, and eats like a voracious beast. At night she still races to my bed, eager for me to scoop her up so she can nestle under the covers, next to my right hip. I wish I could fall asleep as fast as she does.
I love our life, despite the stress and worries. She is family, a dog bona-fide member of my pack. Like a little ca- nine Centrum, she remains that daily vitamin that I look forward to seeing each morning.
Diana Sevanian is a retired R.N. and longtime Signal features writer and columnist.