a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Old Age. It's Not for the Faint of Heart.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Old Age. It's Not for the Faint of Heart.

SUMMARY: A scare, sadness, and relief.

Over the last week, I've been talking to my first sister a bit about her 13-year old Lab mix who has been in declining health. But the dog still loved to go for walks, even if she could barely stand. Incontinent. Maybe a little senile, a little hard to tell. When was the right time to let her go? Would she make it easy by slipping away quietly some night in her bed?

No, she leaped down a couple of steps into the carpeted living room yesterday--the dog who could barely walk, needed a towel under her belly held by her human caretakers to help her stand, wanted to leap down the step--fell, and couldn't get up again. Her front legs were as strong as ever, but her back and hind legs had given up, couldn't hold her up. Had she damaged something, or was this just progressive deterioration? Could she feel anything in her rear legs? Could it be fixed? Guessing not--

My mother has had some serious health issues lately. She's still SO much "Mom"; no sign of the mental deterioration that she had so feared because all of her female relatives succumbed to it, but at 80, some other things have come up in rapid succession, landing her in the hospital or emergency room several times in the last half year. We've had some scares. I don't know whether she or we are more scared each time.

She's had some procedures last week to try to stabilize her heartbeat. Thought it was successful. Then problems, and to the emergency room. Then OK and home again. It's her heart, for goodness sakes; these aren't minor things. She's always been so strong, or seemed like it to me. Very active and healthy, mentally and physically and socially.

Last night I told my sister to call me if she decided to put the dog to sleep and needed company, someone other than her own daughters, whom she'd have to take care of more than they could take care of her at such a difficult time.

I've heard nothing all day. Headed out for an evening with my Master Composters group around 6:00. Home a bit after 9, and there are 4 messages blinking on my answering machine. Given that I usually have about one once or twice a week, and given the way things have been going, that couldn't be good.

The messages were from my dad, saying that he was taking mom to the emergency room again. From my first sister saying that she put the dog to sleep and shortly thereafter got the call about my mom and was now at the hospital with my parents. Two from my out-of-state fourth sister wanting reassurance, feeling outside of everything.

OK, that's not so bad--given that there were no additional follow-up calls.

I called my first sister for an update. Mom's back and legs seemed to be giving out, wouldn't hold her up, she fell or was afraid of falling (not clear on this), couldn't feel one leg. Couldn't get up. So they'd gone to the hospital.

The doctors had ruled out heart attack and stroke and were progressing through a variety of other tests. Mom was perfectly capable of chatting and being--well--just the same mom as always, just with a body that's not willing to play the same games the same way any more. Turns out that it's just a (probably) minor infection, and she'll spend the night there so they can keep an eye on her to be sure that the treatment is taking rapid effect.

I am greatly relieved.

But meanwhile the hospital can't find a copy of mom's Advance Directive. What does the directive say? If she falls down the steps into the living room and can't get up, what do we do? She's not a dog, not senile, still going to contribute a lot to her family and the world--we expect--and she's only 80, for crying out loud, that's not old enough to be frail. Is it? Isn't 80 the new 60? And 60's the new 40?

It's all so much really out of our control. We have to rely on the expertise of others, and we have no good way of knowing whether they actually have any idea of what they're talking about. We like to hope so. We have to hope so.

Because I expect mom and dad to still be around when I hit 100. That's just the way it's supposed to work. And by then, I'll have lost how many dogs to the Big Milkbone in the Sky? Four so far, two more on their way--Tika's 8, Boost's 4. Ten years from now, I don't expect that they'll still be with me. Some other young and bouncy and crazy and loving dog will most likely be in my life. It won't be the same as any of my previous dogs. It won't be as good as they were. And, in other ways, it will be better.

Not so easy to adopt a replacement parent from the local parent shelter; their screening requirements are REALLY tough. So I'll have to keep the ones I've got. And meanwhile my sister's dog is gone. In peace. But so hard for the ones left behind.

I have no clever line to wrap this up. Because the story really has no end. So I guess I'll go to bed.


  1. Your title is so right. Old age is really hard. It's even harder when no one seems to know exactly what's happening and you get vastly different reports from each person involved. All you can really do is try not to freak out and cut each other lots of slack.

    After both my parents died I found myself thinking of questions I'd wished I'd asked them (about family history, etc) and have had many regrets that I didn't ask those questions before. I also wish I could hear those stories from our childhood just once more...

  2. My parents have spent the last 20 years pretty meticulously documenting our family history--not just geneology, but anecdotes and data on where we lived, what we were doing, and so on.

    But I do from time to time think of something I want to ask them--but can never remember when I see them. A year ago I gave them both "grandparents books" with tons and tons and tons of detailed questions about their lives. They started filling them out but they're so busy and have so much else to do... My dad went digging for their partially completed copies the other day after my mom was last in the emergency room (Friday) and I hope that they have the strength and the time to finish them.

    And I know that, as soon as they're gone, everything I don't know and never thought to ask will come rushing into my head.