Caring for Aging Parents and Pets - An Unbending Commitment

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When my cell phone rang last Thursday morning, I answered. It was my Papa Paul.

“Will we see you today?” his distant voice quavered.

“No, dad,” I remind him. “We said goodbye yesterday. I’m in L.A.”

“Oh. Well I’m glad you made it back alright. Give your lovely wife a hug from us.”

And so I did, telling her exactly where it came from. 

For a good hour, my Wednesday night flight back from Chicago did a buck-and-wing into the headwinds, jostling passengers and contents in the overhead bins. Airborne turbulence rattles me more under dark skies because I can’t see what’s ahead. Or above. Or, when we’re flying over America’s heartland, below.

But change always comes - whether I see it coming or not.

Between last Saturday and Wednesday, I was on hand to help my parents explore the amenities and learn the ropes of their new, continuing-care facility. Not so easy because their memory, attention and tempers are running short. They entered on the independent tier, though the signs I witnessed point to their need for steeper grades of assistance in the coming months.

My incredibly attentive siblings and I will be there to smooth out those transitions of care. We will continue to assure them that we love and value them for all they’ve been and who they are.

We will be there for them, because that’s what we do.

My wife’s and my doggie daughter, Lilly, will also change with age. Earlier changes may be almost imperceptible: a slight frosting of the hairs on her snout; heavier panting as she labors along that incline she easily trotted up the previous year. Later changes will be more obvious: freezing in front of that hazy form once recognized as a favorite toy,  more often opting to nap or be alone than to play. Vacant looks. Stumbling. Whines without apparent reason. Over time, these may graduate from the exception to the rule.

Fortunately, Lilly won’t have to move into a special facility to ensure that her meals are prepared, her healthcare managed and her activities mapped out. Such places offer safety and stability for elder humans whose daily needs have out-stripped their own or their family’s ability to meet them at home. An aging pet’s needs are far simpler: us with them - in the place they know as home.

My folks and I hugged and said our goodbyes last Wednesday afternoon. I slid through their facility’s side door, their warmth surrendered to the crisp, pre-Valentine’s air. Unmistakably midwest. A gentle breeze fanned the tips of leafless tree branches encased in ice. When the tips clinked together, it sounded like the pealing of a thousand tiny bells.

I looked back through a picture window. My folks waved at me. I smiled and blew them kisses.

I’ll be back. Soon.

Not so the thousands of people who surrender their elder pets each year because the end of the race is near and they lack the fortitude to cross the finish line with them. Bewildered fur children tremble in the arms of shelter volunteers as they watch their trusted parents walk out on them forever. No looking back or blowing kisses.

As long as my wife and I have breath in us - and Lilly has breath in her - she will never witness such a scene.

Because that’s what we do.

Click here for resources on adopting an older or special-needs pet.