My mom had Parkinson’s, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s–and she lived with my family (husband, daughters and me), and I was her full-time caregiver. I remember when I realized my mom was dying., literally dying–and that she would pass away in our home. I wanted to give her a home passing, but I felt sucked into death with her. The atmosphere of our home was somber. I was sleep deprived, zombified, and barreling toward depression. As crazy as it sounds, I told my husband I wanted a puppy.
Yes, I know dogs are work. I know puppies are even ten times more work. Why would a caregiver want something else to take care of? Because I needed to surround myself with new life. I needed a roly poly furry baby body to hold. I needed puppy’s breath (which to me smells like coffee, an aroma I adore) and tiny wimpers. I needed to surround myself with life as we faced the end of my mother’s days.
It wasn’t that I had read or considered studies about stress and the healing powers of pet therapy. It was pure instinct.
I’m often asked for hints to help caregivers and I know it might sound lame, but I deeply believe that the answer, at least part of it, lies in nature. We’re surrounded by this lush world of variety, color, texture, sights, smells, and sounds. The earth is our food–for our bodies and our souls.
My greatest comfort during my most stressful caregiving times was to go outside, stand by the river behind our house, wander in and out of the trees, pick wildflowers (commonly known as weeds), and feel the ground beneath me and the wind brush past me. Nothing brought me back to a place of calm than to simply step outside, take a few minutes, and breathe.
My husband and I went for a bike ride just minutes after I said I needed a puppy, that all of us needed a puppy. We’d only be gone ten minutes–a jaunt around the neighborhood…and there was a sign near the front of our community. “Free puppies.”
Not kidding. There it was. I took it as a sign (ha!) and we turned into the driveway. It was a wide, flat yard with a doghouse, a trailer for a boat and a few spread out trees. And there was my puppy. A six-week old Alaskan Malamute/German shepherd mix curled in a C under the boat trailer. She was fat, sweet, and I knew she was to be mine.
We came home from that ten minute bike ride with Kismet. That’s her name. It’s means fate.
Our daughter’s eyes lit up, and even my mom, lost in muddled memories so long ago, connected. We were smitten. Kismet made us all laugh, play, and cuddle. It was exactly what we needed. New life. Hope. Proof that life goes on.
Yes, it took energy and time to train her, and we all pitched in. And yes, puppies do get up in the middle of night–but hey, I was already up with my mom anyway. She had sundowning and many of her nights resembled a late night brawl in a lively Irish pub. My mom yelled, ate handfuls out fo the frig or pantry, tried to escape, wrecked her room–it was wild. At least I could calm her, get her in bed, and hold my pudgy puppy for a few minutes and take in that musky, earthy puppy breath that only lasts for a few months.
Maybe this sounds like too much work, and don’t think you have to commit to a pet in order to feel joy and connection.
Simple ways to surround yourself with new life:
- Get flowers at the grocery store each week. Start collecting African violets–get some feed solution, and set yourself up a window of violets in pinks, lavenders, deep purples and blues. If one dies, toss it!
- Get some stick-on bird feeders that attach to your windows. They’re so cool and you can get them at a local bird or pet store, hardware or even WalMart. You can get hummingbird feeders or songbird feeders. It’s amazing to stand in your kitchen washing dishes and see a hummingbird hover right in front of you.
- Buy bird feeder and put up a bird bath in your garden. Who cares if the squirrels eat it, too. Squirrels are fun to watch as well. I had a little guy with a bent tail visit me outside my home office window for years–every morning at 10am. I rushed to get in there to see the little guy and I enjoyed their antics–he apparently had a thing for a girl squirrel who was the equivalent to the prom queen because every male squirrel fawned over her. It’s better than watching the soaps!
- Get binoculars and sit on the porch with your care buddy and bird watch together.
- Stop by your local animal shelter–or even the pet store. On your way home from errands, stop and pet some kitties and puppies at the local shelter. They need love and will be better pets for their adoptive family if they get touched and talked to every day. You don’t have to “own” a pet to enjoy them.
- Go to the zoo, local butterfly garden, or nature preserve. Caregiving can include field trips! Even if your loved one can’t walk far, many places have wheelchairs or can drive you in a golf cart. And who says you need to go through the whole place? Pick one animal you love, let your care buddy pick one animal they love, and only go there. Even thirty minutes is worth it–and with senior discounts, it’s a reasonable price and will change your whole day.
Kismet is now 7 years old–and what I had no way of knowing is that she would give us another gift. The last few months of my mom’s life was excruciating and poignant. Alzheimer’s took her ability to eat, to chew, to swallow, and her death was slow but I’m grateful to have this experience. On the year anniversary of my mom’s passing, Rupert, Kismet’s son was born.
Life trumps death.
He is the most adorable dog–sweet, funny, goofy and he came right on time. Just when we all needed another infusion of life.
I hope you find life–in the midst of caregiving–in the midst of sorrow and stress. Go with your gut and find something that quickens your heart. Life. It’s all around you.