Senior Special

As a culture, we are obsessed with the “new.” The latest gadget. That fresh fashion line. The eating habit that will squeeze us back into the jeans we wore during senior year.

The problem with our hot-off-the-press obsession is our tendency to discard the “old.” Unfortunately, this practice is not always limited to material objects.

As a speech pathologist in a medical setting, I’ve seen too many aging patients with no families at their side when they need them most. As one who has just recently entered the world of animal rescue, I’ve learned that elder pets comprise a huge portion of the shelter population. My heart hurts to know that, all too often, these elder gems are surrendered because they were seen as worn-out, much like an old pair of shoes.

Oh, the treasures that these people gave up on!

Advantages abound in adopting an older pet. For starters, they are usually much more well-mannered than their juvenile counterparts and tend to follow at least rudimentary commands, so training needs are much less intensive. Because they have a history of human companionship and are not surging with growth hormones, older pets can focus better and learn new tricks, despite what the old adage says!

After an initial adjustment period, the chances are you will not return to a soiled house or find your valuables shredded, toppled or devoured. Senior pets simply don’t display the full-throttle energy of the young-uns. For this very reason, their tempo is thought to suit older human companions perfectly.

Probably the strongest case for adopting an older pet is that they tend to be more adaptable (they’ve certainly come this far, haven’t they!). They frequently love and are tolerant of children and their sometimes raucous behavior toward them. Plus, the potential adopter may have access to the pet’s background which gives them a “leg-up” on possible behavioral issues and how to intervene.

One of the many arguments that prospective pet owners make in favor of a puppy or kitten (especially one purchased from a “reputable” breeder) is that the pet does not come with “issues.”

While you may think you’re getting a “blank slate,” there’s no way to be sure – even with purebreds – what behavioral traits your fledgling has inherited. Moreover, no matter how much your personal house is in order, at least some undesirable behaviors will arise, just by virtue that the puppy or kitten is ALIVE and exposed to the environment. And so it goes with OUR own “issues.” It’s how we respond to these behaviors that can make the difference for a pet between living in a forever home and being dumped at the shelter – or worse.

You want to be thoughtful when bringing your older companion home. During the first few days, try to minimize over-stimulation. Defer invitations to well-meaning visitors, reduce the volume on the stereo and cut back on frenetic activity. Give them a break and let them adjust. They may have been housed at the shelter for weeks or months, wondering all that time when their person was coming back – waiting to awaken from the nightmare of their abandonment. You can help them “awaken” peacefully to the reality of their new home.

Though it may be hard to resist cuddling and caressing your new family member, hold back for now. Let them explore their new home and come to you in their own time. Patience is one of the extraordinary gifts that pet parenthood bestows upon us.

The downside of adopting an older pet? Of course, medical bills will increase with age. Hip dysplasia sets in, vision fades, bladders and bowels fail. As with our human elders, we have the opportunity to step up – or step out. There is no better time for us to discover what we are truly made of than when their end draws near.

There is no escaping this lesson. Even if you adopt or buy a healthy, younger pet, you will eventually have to confront its aging and dying process. And therein lies perhaps their most priceless gift to us. We are given a window into our own mortality and how we – as the “smarter, more evolved” humans – can deal with it.

You will notice that a companion animal does not fret about his own death or the legacy she leaves. If we hold still, hold them close and listen carefully, we will understand that their loving life itself is the legacy. And, after their ashes are enshrined on our mantles or scattered to the wind, we can ask ourselves if we have the same grace to “go quietly into that good night.”

Please visit Frosted Faces Foundation, Grey Muzzle and Leave No Paws Behind for more information and to learn how you can help.