I overheard a conversation. “How are your parents doing?” one asked. “Oh, you know, they’re deteriorating,” said the other. “That’s it?” I thought. “That’s how she sums up her parents… They’re deteriorating? What about, “They’re facing some challenges but they’re coping ” or “They’re declining and struggling to maintain their independence” or “All things considered, they’re pretty resilient…” . Almost anything was better than reducing her parents to a short description of passive diminishment. And that’s when I thought about my dog.
We buried Tiger on Saturday. When you have a very old pet, you hope they will give you a sign, letting you know that “it’s time.” And then, when they do, you don’t want to believe it. Tiger was 21 — really old for a cat — and we are grateful for every year we had with this wonderful, loving, dignified friend.
A few months ago, I wrote about how we had modified our home in order to help Tiger age in place. (Helping Tiger Age in Place). Since Saturday, I’ve been thinking about how Bill and I became Tiger’s caregivers as he became increasingly frail. Although the tasks were sometimes unpleasant, we did them without disgust or resentment. I was in charge of litter duty. During his last year of life, Tiger drank huge quantities of water because his kidneys were failing and routinely urinated outside the litter box, even though we had lowered two sides so he could step in more easily. I also cleaned Tiger when he fell into the litter because his hind legs could no longer support him as he squatted. I am not surprised that Bill was a wonderful caregiver; nurturing is second nature to him. But I am a let-me-cross-things-off-my-list kind of person, not a let-me-help-you kind of person. I am worried about my ability to provide the kind of assistance a love one may need some day.
Yes, I prepared my mother-in-law’s medications each week and took care of my mother’s medical bills, but these were list-type tasks, not the intimate, embarrassing, personal tasks that often accompany caregiving. I’m worried I won’t be good enough, or selfless enough, when the time comes. I know I did it with Tiger, but Tiger was not my husband or my parent.
Next week, we will rescue Jackson, a 12 week old kitten, from a nearby shelter, just as we rescued Tiger 21 years ago. It’s not that we are trying to replace Tiger —Tiger can’t be replaced. It’s that we have experienced the joy of living with pets and know that this is the way we want to live our lives. But I can’t get a replacement mother or husband a week later. Perhaps it is this permanence that makes caregiving for loved ones so much harder than caregiving for a pet. But who knows. I was a better caregiver than I thought I would be with Tiger, perhaps I will be better than I expect with the people I love as well. I hope so.
Tiger walks slowly, very slowly. His legs are bowed, his back is crooked, and his once powerful hind legs are wasted. Years ago, Tiger easily leapt into the air. Now, he needs help getting on and off my husband’s chair. Externally, Tiger is very changed from the strong young cat he was. Internally, though, Tiger seems much the same. His favorite pastime is still sitting quietly on Bill’s lap, giving and receiving love. As we noticed physical changes in Tiger, we began to think about what we could do to help him remain independent and injury-free. In addition, we felt badly each time Tiger failed at something he had once done so easily; we worried that he was embarrassed, and we wanted to preserve his dignity. Tiger has always had a lot of dignity. So we began to implement a series of aging in place modifications.
Since Tiger can no longer jump onto my husband’s chair, we installed a three-step pet ladder so Tiger could get on and off the chair on his own. At first, Tiger distained using the ladder, but when attempts to jump resulted in falls, he quietly adopted it as his normal method of access. We built similar steps to and from a sunroom window, and while Tiger seldom goes outside anymore, when he does, he uses these steps rather than jump the 18 inches.
Some months ago, we noticed that Tiger was urinating outside the litter box. At first, we wondered if he had become confused, which can happen to old cats. Then we guessed that perhaps Tiger could no longer step over the 5-inch high walls of the litter box. We cut out a special entrance to the litter box with a one inch high lip, and Tiger immediately began using it. He wanted to continue his former behavior; he just needed some modifications.
We’ve changed other things for Tiger as well. To keep his weight up, Tiger gets a can of wet food every night – a welcome change no doubt from the dry food he has eaten his whole life. So far, it’s working. Tiger tips the scales at 7 pounds—good for a very old cat. Like many old cats, Tiger has kidney problems and drinks huge quantities of water to compensate for his failing kidneys. As a result, the litter needs to be changed daily, and we’ve surrounded the entire litter box with paper since Tiger sometimes misses the actual entrance.
Tiger loses great quantities of hair, and because of his arthritis, he can no longer groom himself properly, so we brush him each night. We know that Tiger has cataracts in his eyes, his hearing is impaired and his meow is scratchy, but in our eyes, he remains a handsome elderly gentleman.
We sometimes think about how Tiger spends his days now, as compared to his youth. He still naps in the sunlight, enjoys watching birds on our front porch and sits on our lap every night. Although he cannot do many of the things he used to do, it seems to us that the essential Tiger – the sweet, loving cat we have always known –is still there, and that Tiger has a good quality of life.
As I think about Tiger, I can’t help but make comparisons to how I would treat an elderly family member, or how I would want to be treated myself. I would want to be as independent as possible, in a familiar environment that maximized my dignity and minimized the impact of my impairments. I would want to be surrounded by people who accept me for who I am, even though I may be different in many ways from who I once was. I would want a good quality of life, where I could continue to do the things that are important to me. And like Tiger, I would want to give love as well as receive it.
So in addition to being the best cat in the world, Tiger has even taught me lessons on how to age.