Guest post by Katie Kapro, via Grey Muzzle.
My grandmother’s dog Mickey, a whippet-chihuahua mix, has the personality of a bouncer and the plump, muscular build of a chicken breast with legs. My grandmother Binkie has a fragile build — knobby joints and slender wrists — suited to her 90 years. They are an unusual and somehow perfectly-suited pair.
Mickey came into Binkie’s life soon after her 84th birthday. He was the product of divorce, abandoned with a friend who owns a kennel. At the same time, Binkie had a whole quiet house to herself. Her husband died of Parkinson’s disease 30 years earlier, and all of her kids and grandkids were grown. After an initial week of skittishness, Mickey settled right in with Binkie. He claimed a corner of her bed, learned that one yip at the backdoor would beckon her posthaste, and discovered that his favorite perch is her lap. Whether she’s sitting at the table, watching football in the reclining chair, or rocking in the living room, Mickey will leap onto her legs and sit alert while she strokes his back.
When Binkie brought Mickey home he was just beginning to show the first signs of grey around his muzzle. Today he has all the telltale colorings of age around his nose, ears, and brows. They are growing elderly together.
Mickey was overweight when he first came to Binkie. Being a product of a Southern California farm family during the Great Depression, Binkie had no problem getting him down to a healthy weight. His veterinarian actually challenged them to a contest with several other families—the dog who lost the highest percentage of excess body fat would win a lifetime supply of dog food. Binkie put Mickey on a Depression diet and they won. The funny thing is, through the course of the diet she found that Mickey was exceedingly fond of steamed green beans and carrots, so it will take them a long time to work through the prize kibble.
Their mealtime ritual is something to behold. Promptly at 4:15 every afternoon, Mickey click-clacks into the kitchen and yaps that he’s ready for his dinner. Binkie will have already chopped the vegetables and have them in the steamer. She’ll generally wag a finger at him or put her hands on her hips and chastise him for being so impatient. His response is to prance around the linoleum for a moment and wait at his food dish. After the veggies have cooled, she’ll dish up his serving and he’ll gobble it down, carefully plucking each carrot from the dish and carrying it to the living room to eat first.
Inevitably, he will bark for a second helping and a hilarious monologue about being spoiled ensues.
Shortly after dinner, it’s time for their nightly walk around the neighborhood. Often owners of senior dogs stop exercising their pets for fear of exacerbating their injuries and ailments, but as a senior herself, Binkie knows that the solution to an aging body isn’t lethargy. She still gets regular exercise and has an active social life, so why wouldn’t her dog?
Another aspect of Binkie’s age that makes her an attentive senior dog parent is that she has come to terms with the inevitable fact that every life will end, including her own. It’s not an abstraction for her. She has attended more funerals than I have friends. She has mourned the deaths of family, friends, and almost every popular icon that she knew as a girl.
It leads one to develop a certain practicality.
While Binkie’s children were growing up, she worked as a legal assistant. She witnessed firsthand the value of planning ahead for all the sundry legal issues one’s family is left negotiating after their death. Pet care, it turns out, is something that often gets overlooked.
People just assume that someone in their family will step in and care for their beloved pet. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Senior dogs especially have a troubled time in this regard—if they have health issues it’s less likely that someone will volunteer to take on the animal and all their expenses.
So what’s the most practical course of action?
Most states make it easy to set up a pet trust for an animal in the case of your death. While a will can take months to enact, leaving the animal stranded, a pet trust can be enacted immediately.
The basic premise is that the owner chooses a friend or family member as a pet trustee, sets aside money to help with expenses, and records daily care information like routines and veterinary details. Quite possibly the most valuable part of the process is that it’s a formal way to have a conversation with someone who is willing to care for the pet. It’s a means for having a discussion that is innately uncomfortable, but entirely necessary for the well-being of the animal.
Binkie and Mickey, both bona fide senior citizens, don’t spend all their time thinking about death. At least she doesn’t. I can’t say for sure that Mickey doesn’t, but I’m pretty sure dog treats win that spot. Binkie has had a lot of practice with aging, and she understands better than most just how important it is to prepare for the practical realities of life and death.
The best life advice I ever got from Binkie? Live every moment to its fullest and take care of the people, and animals, you love.
Binkie and Mickey are not alone in their bond. How have dogs bettered the lives of seniors in your life?
Guest post by Nursing@Georgetown.
They are some of the most difficult discussions that families face. However, when a loved one needs end-of-life care, there are many issues to consider, and helping your loved one discuss them ahead of time with a healthcare professional—such as a family nurse practitioner—can help you be better prepared to ensure that their needs are met.
This is especially true if you are a family caregiver who is carrying additional responsibility. According to a recent report, Families Caring for an Aging America, at least 17.7 million people in the U.S. are caring for a loved one—and a key recommendation in the report is to involve families more in a patient’s plan for care. By being better informed about end-of-life care, you’ll know what questions to ask and plans to make to ensure that both you and your loved one receive the support you both deserve.
The difference between palliative care and hospice care
When discussing end-of-life care, many mistakenly think that palliative care and hospice care are the same thing—but they’re not. Hospice care is for those facing a life-limiting illness, and always includes palliative care. The focus of hospice care is on comfort, rather than cure, and it is covered under Medicare, Medicaid, and many types of private insurance plans, including the Veteran’s Administration (VA).
Palliative care can be provided separate from hospice care to address pain and symptom management needs for anyone with severe illness. It can also include curative care, if that’s what the individual wants. Palliative care has been available in the hospital for some time, and in many communities, it is also available in home and long-term care settings. Palliative care is covered in the same manner as other types of traditional healthcare.
The critical need to talk
A number of studies have proven that many individuals receive more aggressive care at end-of-life than they want—which is typically delivered in a setting they don’t want to be in, like the intensive care unit. Often, this scenario occurs because important conversations haven’t taken place with both loved ones and healthcare providers ahead of time. When discussing your loved one’s needs with them—and participating in discussions with healthcare providers—some key questions to include are:
Such advance care planning is key to ensuring that your loved one receives the appropriate level of intervention that aligns with their desires. Completing advance directives—documents such as a living will and designation of a healthcare proxy—puts your loved one’s wishes in writing and allows a designated trusted party to make healthcare decisions if your loved one is unable to make them independently.
Check out this great video that discusses five easy steps to advance care planning:
Guest post by Lisa Lunghofer, Ph.D.
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”
People aren’t the only ones living longer. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s website explains, “Due to improved veterinary care and dietary habits, pets are living longer now than they ever have before.” Dogs in particular are enjoying increased longevity, though not all are lucky enough to find themselves in loving homes in their senior years.
Last summer I was named Executive Director of The Grey Muzzle Organization. I have had many different jobs during the course of my career, but never have I worked for an organization with a vision that made me choke up each time I try to say it out loud: We envision a world where no old dog dies alone and afraid. I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to lead an organization dedicated to the beautiful and noble mission of helping homeless senior dogs. With one senior dog curled up in her bed under my desk and another lounging on the couch, this cause is near to my heart.
The old dogs that share our hearts and homes are part of our family. Sadly, many old dogs are not that fortunate. Senior dogs slow down. They develop medical issues. And many find themselves alone, afraid, and at-risk in shelters across the United States.
The need for programs to help older dogs and the people who love them has never been greater. BJ, a Shih Tzu from Knoxville, Tennessee, is a perfect example. Ten-year-old BJ had a skin condition that required daily medication. The condition also required that BJ receive regular clippings to keep his fur short. Michael, a senior himself and BJ’s person, could not afford to have BJ groomed regularly and struggled with the thought that he might need to give him up.
BJ was at risk of being one of those unfortunate dogs who find themselves alone and afraid in a shelter, and Michael was at risk of losing his best friend.
The Grey Muzzle Organization creates happy endings to heartbreaking stories like this one–on a national scale. Similar to the International Federation on Ageing’s work to improve the lives of older people, Grey Muzzle works to improve the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing grants and other resources to animal welfare organizations nationwide.
Grey Muzzle funding and resources support medical and dental care, in-home hospice services, beds for old dogs at shelters, and education programs to encourage adoption and quality care of senior dogs. Recognizing the importance of the human-animal bond to older adults, we also support Seniors for Seniors programs, which encourage senior people to adopt senior dogs and help older people keep their beloved pets by providing food, medical care, and other support such as assistance with grooming.
Thanks to a grant from Grey Muzzle to Knox PAWS (Placing Animals With Seniors), BJ received monthly grooming at no cost to Michael. Knox PAWS, which is offered by the Office on Aging in Knox County, Tennessee, works with animal shelters to match senior pets with senior citizens and provides resources to seniors like Michael. Misty Goodwin, Senior Manager of Knox PAWS, explains, “Our agency has seen firsthand how difficult it is for seniors, many of whom are on fixed incomes, to provide care to their aging pets. We receive calls regularly from seniors who love their pets but feel they need to surrender them because they simply do not have the financial means to care for them. We want to carry out Grey Muzzle’s mission and keep older pets and people together.”
Consistent with the Office on Aging’s mandate to meet the needs of older citizens in Knox County, Knox PAWS improves the well-being of both senior adults and dogs. The program is intended to reduce loneliness and stress as well as improve the physical and mental health of seniors, while at the same time keeping senior dogs out of shelters. Goodwin sums up her agency’s mission, saying, “We provide care and comfort for old dogs and the seniors who love them.”
Lisa Lunghofer, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of The Grey Muzzle Organization.